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Imperial War Museum North

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
Published January 5th 2013
A museum with great views and lots to discover
War Stories is a phrase which often means comic book tales of derring-do. At Imperial War Museum North (IWM) there are many stories of bravery but also accounts of civilians caught up in the upheaval of conflict.

IWM North's objective is to show how war has shaped lives, specifically from 1914 to the present day. It is currently holding a major exhibition called: Saving Lives: Front Line Medicine in a century of conflict.

The sound of a Chinook helicopter follows you as you walk around the exhibition. It comes from a video-loop by the artist David Cotterrell. He was commissioned in 2007, by the Wellcome Trust, to produce work inspired by the Joint Forces Medical Group in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum North

Helicopter rotor blades are a world away from the bicycle wheels of the Manumotive Invalid Carriage. It was built for a soldier who had both legs amputated after the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

A more modern form of transport is represented by a Land Rover Ambulance, which was severely damaged in a mortar attack at Basra air base in June 2007. The vehicle's sides, including its painted red cross, are punctured with holes.

The facilities in the back of the Land Rover do at least look more comfortable than the bare operating table, which was used in the First World War. A scalpel, held in a glass case, looks sharp enough to cut you if you brushed past it. Perhaps something similar was used to remove the bullet fragments on display, removed from soldiers.
Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum North

War does not, of course, just cause physical wounds. The poignant film War Neuroses shows footage of men recovering from shell shock at the Netley Hospital, Hampshire.

When you enter the main exhibition space at IWM North your first reaction may well be to look up at the AV-8A Harrier hanging from the ceiling. Most exhibits, however, have their feet, or wheels, firmly on the ground. The 1982 Trabant Deluxe Estate Car is not itself a military vehicle but a symbol of life in East Germany during the Cold War.

The Trabant's almost pristine state contrasts with the mangled, rusty wreckage of a car destroyed by the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street book market. Baghdad, 5 March 2007 has previously featured in exhibitions by Turner prize winning artist Jeremy Deller in the USA.

Just as alarming a sight is the steel-section from the World Trade Centre, which was shipped over from New York. Its twisted remains are yet more evidence of the destruction of the 9/11 attacks.

Smaller items can be just as chilling though. The yellow star, which Jewish people had to wear in Nazi Germany, is a warning of the divisive evil of state-enforced racism.

IWM North does not just use objects to tell its many stories. During the Big Picture Show, the lights fade down, images are projected on to the walls and you are surrounded by testimonies from witnesses to war. In addition, the 'soundtrack' includes depth charge explosions, torpedo launches, rapid machine gun fire and a barrage of other recordings.
Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum North

The museum's activities for families include a children's journey trail, object handling sessions, theatrical performances and a chance to dress up in camouflage.

The WaterShard Café sells sandwiches and hot meals (Dig for Victory-Victory Sponge was also on sale when I visited). The jukebox holds discs by Gracie Fields, Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, The Andrews Sisters and Joe Loss. Back in the museum itself, the Women & War section features a uniform worn by Marlene Dietrich on a tour of Europe.

Before you leave IWM North, perhaps to catch the tram from MediaCity, you could walk or take the lift up to the Air Shard Viewing Platform. At nearly 100-feet it's not recommended if you're susceptible to vertigo. However, the fantastic panoramic view includes the Manchester skyline, the Ship Canal, Old Trafford Football Ground and even the new Coronation Street set, currently under construction.

IWM North was designed by Daniel Libeskind and opened in 2002. Having celebrated its tenth birthday, it will put on new exhibitions and displays for 2013, including one concerned with the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq; a Horrible Histories Big Picture Show; an exhibition of IWM North's contemporary art collection and a new installation by ceramic artist Chava Rosenzweig to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
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Phone: 0161 836 4000
Where: The Quays Trafford Wharf Road MANCHESTER M17 1TZ
Cost: Free
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