The art of war | Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, Imperial War Museum, London - Museums Association

The art of war | Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, Imperial War Museum, London

Katy Barrett discovers the power of visual art in directing our view of war
Art Photography World wars
The new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography galleries at Imperial War Museum London – the galleries feature about 500 works from the IWM collection Photo Richard Ash

“Art is the thing that is most hopeful.”

This quotation from artist Rita Duffy is one of a number that feature on the walls of the new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), London. They set the tone for a suite of displays that have people, images and image-making at their heart.

The galleries are beautifully designed, visually rich and interestingly interpreted. A clear emphasis has been put on under-represented groups and less well-known conflicts.

Visitors are greeted by an introductory gallery with a dense, floor-to-ceiling hang of images that show the depth and range of the collection to be explored. A light-touch chronological hang roots the collection and displays in the founding of IWM after world war one, but demonstrates how the museum’s remit has expanded with the spread of modern conflict. The core message is that visual works have a role in war, reflecting social, cultural and political changes and shaping how we think about conflict.

I was struck by the use of the term “visual practitioners” in the introductory text, which highlights the curators’ careful decision to present art, film and photography on an equal playing field of practice and with the different media combined in the hangs.

A painting depicting women in bunk beds and undressing ready for bed in muted greys, greens
Land Army Girls going to Bed, 1943, by Evelyn Mary Dunbar © IWM

Displaying film alongside two-dimensional works can present challenges, but here the visual balance works well and the sound is carefully controlled. The works on paper are largely originals or exhibition prints so the hangs presumably allow for ongoing rest and rotation of works.

Space to discover

After the introductory gallery, visitors can explore the further six spaces in any order. The open design draws you in, with varied hangs allowing striking visual relationships and juxtapositions.

The section titled Practice and Process highlights a series of people who engaged visually with war, and the different technologies used to do so. Focus objects in central cases are supported by a band of images running around the walls that show visual practitioners at work.

Examples range from the hat, sketchbook and pencil box used by artist and satirical cartoonist Ronald Searle during his time as a Japanese prisoner of war in world war two, to a wristwatch and notepad used by journalist Paul Eedle while filming in Iraq in 2003. They give a sense of the everyday mixed with the extraordinary. 

The sections entitled Perspectives and Frontiers and Mind and Body focus on landscapes and people respectively, showing war on the ground and in the air, on the home front and in the medical arena.

Both galleries highlight how conflict has pushed artists to find new ways to portray what they see. They also both combine the museum’s rich collections from the two world wars with more recent works, including modern commissions.

An old wooden box, paintbrushes and separate small tin with tubes of paint in it
Wartime cartoonist Ronald Searles artists tools © IWM

Each of the latter galleries also features a dedicated area for viewing longer films. Art Box is focused on artists’ films while Screening Space shows more documentary material.


There is a running order of what is on throughout the day, but I was surprised that no information was provided on what to expect from each film. These varied hugely in length and content, meaning the lack of information made me less likely to stop and commit time, which does the content a disservice.

This was especially surprising, because otherwise the interpretation is a highlight of the galleries and has clearly been given careful thought. Following a concise introductory panel for each space, and further brief information on two or three sub-sections in each room, information is focused on the object labels.

Each follows a three-part structure introducing the practitioner, the image or object, and the context. This draws attention to the importance of the images and their makers, as well as puts them in context.

This allows expansion on the artist’s wider practice, life or influences, as well as the context of conflict, as needed. I loved this approach, which means you can dip in and out of different aspects of each image or object.

The Power of the Image gallery brings the role of image-making in how we see conflict right up to date, focusing on propaganda and evidence. Social media images from recent conflicts raise key questions about the responsibility and authority of images.

For instance, with certain types of image seeming to be more real or creating particular public responses, how should we as viewers come to these with a critical eye? How does this inform how we look at the historic images alongside?


I was surprised that this was the only gallery to feature a content warning, when a number of other works on display included challenging and upsetting content.

Focus on… the conservation of Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Ahead of the centre-stage redisplay of John Singer Sargent’s Gassed in the new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, the monumental first world war painting has undergone significant conservation. Varnish removal, remedial structural work, as well as frame conservation, has revealed afresh the visual power of the work.

Following conservation, cutting edge technology captured high-resolution data in 3D, colour and infrared.

The opportunity to conserve Gassed has provided insight not afforded to anyone since the creation of the work in 1919. No IWM team before now has had the project context, budget or time for such an undertaking.

The scale of the work has dictated much of its life, and necessitated innovation from curators and conservators alike. A unique hanging system and install methodology that supported the canvas and frame independently of one another was constructed to ensure the future structural integrity of the six-metre-long work.

The restoration has also yielded new data about the physical history of the work and Sargent’s process. This has further enabled cutting-edge forms of photographic scanning that can be shared with audiences.

Presented on a bespoke vista wall and as the centrepiece of a thematic gallery dedicated to the Mind and Body, Gassed has been reunited with other works made under the British War Memorials Scheme in the first world war. The freshness of Sargent’s colour and light is striking and allows visitors to make connections with the vivid human experience of war more than a century ago.

Rebecca Newell is the head of art for IWM and was the lead curator for the new galleries 

There is a notable focus on accessibility throughout the Blavatnik galleries. For instance, a dedicated area of the introductory gallery features an information point with a tactile gallery map, BSL film and large-print guides.

And well-designed seating – with backs and arm rests – is spaced regularly throughout the galleries, although I did feel that some of the longer films included in the mixed-media hangs expected visitors to stand for an unreasonably long time.

Likewise, the focus on using language such as “visual practitioner and “image” clearly aims to move away from a hierarchy of art and artists, and to allow for the widest diversity of lived experiences and practitioners to be represented.

I was struck, for instance, by the portrait of company quarter-master-sergeant Van Omoheusen of the ATS in Ceylon in the introductory gallery, and a number of works from the British government’s “native-born colonial artists” scheme.

More recent works include Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From Series (2001-03) reflecting the experiences of Palestinians living in exile.

A large painting depicting first world war soldiers with bandages round their eyes holding each others shoulders as they walk in a straight line after being gassed. Dead bodies in the foreground.
Gassed, 1919, by John Singer Sargent is a centrepiece in the new galleries© IWM

Visitors to these galleries will find famous masterpieces of IWM’s visual collections redisplayed alongside perhaps lesser-known contemporary works.

John Singer Sargent’s seminal work Gassed (1919) has undergone significant conservation and now appears in a powerful juxtaposition with Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country (2006), creating the long central view through the suite of galleries.

The displays will offer an important means to think about images and conflict for both those encountering these collections for the first time and those revisiting old friends. Like the best permanent galleries, I suspect they can only fully be appreciated through repeat and frequent visits.

Project data
Main funders
Blavatnik Family Foundation; Department for Culture, Media and Sport; Ministry for Defence; IWM Development Trust; Bloomberg Philanthropies; David Lean Foundation; Finnis Scott Foundation; Foyle Foundation; John S Cohen Foundation; Lovington Foundation; Michael Bishop Foundation; David Pearl; Wolfson Foundation
3D design
Studio Miller
Principal designer
Ayer Associates
Contract management and cost consultancy
Fraser Randall
Marcon Fit Out
Logic Contract Services
Click Netherfield
AV hardware design
AV hardware contractor
AV production

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