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Marking the First World War’s centenary

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Diane Lees

Director of Imperial War Museums

Diane Lees, Director of Imperial War Museums (IWM), takes us through its plans to mark the anniversary of the first global conflict – and explains how you can get involved.

Two years may seem a long way off, especially as we launch into a busy summer of celebration, but 2014 – and its momentous anniversary – will be with us before we know it.
2014-2018 is the Centenary of the First World War – a landmark event for Britain and the world.
The First World War was a turning point in world history, claiming the lives of over 16 million people across the globe. Almost all of us have a connection to it, whether it’s through family history, links to our local community or because of its far-reaching impact on the world we live in today.
It was during the First World War that IWM was founded, as a lasting memorial to all those who played their part in the conflict, at home or on the fighting front. We are proud to continue in this role today.

A hundred years of memories

British tanks and troops parade past the Bethlem Royal Hospital, later to become the Imperial War MuseumAs it prepared to mark the Centenary, the IWM carried out some research to find out more about what people knew and thought about the War. We discovered that, once people are engaged in the subject of the First World War, they’re capable of creating hugely personal connections with it.
Interest can be sparked through family memories or an old photo album, the moving ceremonies of Remembrance Sunday, or fictitious depictions of the conflict, from Downton Abbey to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. And, while the larger narrative and global causes and effects of the War are of course important, it is often the hundreds of thousands of individual stories that really resonate today. From the story of the brave nurses on the Western Front, to the experience of terrified Londoners cowering from Zeppelin attacks, our archives provides a fascinating insight into an age that is at once quite different, and very much the same as today.
Bringing these stories to a new generation is our goal. To help achieve this, we’ve put together the Centenary Partnership. In collaboration with our peers and colleagues from national and international organisations, we will be leading a vibrant four-year programme of cultural activities across the UK.
Since the Centenary Partnership began in May 2010, it already has a network of over 330 national and international organisations, from museums through to local interest groups.
As part of this project we have delved into our archives to create unique material which you can access online. See previously unseen portraits of those who served in the war with our Faces of the First World War project on Flickr; listen to Voices of the First World War, our series of podcasts that bring you the stories of those who lived through the war in their own words; or light a light on the Centenary Wall to help ensure that the sacrifices of those who lived and died in the First World War will not be forgotten.

Transforming IWM London

Image showing the concept of the new Central Hall and terrace displays’ (Credit Foster + Partners)We also need to ensure we have a long-lasting legacy from the Centenary so we will be delivering the first phase of our transformation of IWM London by 2014.
IWM London, our flagship branch, last saw significant investment in the late 1980s. We are now working with architects Foster + Partners on a £35 million project to create new, significantly larger First World War galleries, allowing us to display much more of our exceptional First World War collections. We will be reconfiguring the Central Hall, which holds some of our iconic large objects, and adding additional gallery space at the top of the museum for exhibitions relating to contemporary conflicts – and as with all the best museums, there will be a new, improved, shop and a new Café opening onto the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.
In order for these building works to happen quickly and safely, IWM London will be temporarily closed for six months from January 2013. No Director recommends this lightly, but in comparison with other large national museums, our main site is actually quite small: all our visitors have to pass through the main atrium space, and use the same staircases and lifts. Could you imagine the noise and disruption if we started digging out new lift pits in the middle of school group visits? Let alone putting the toilets out of action! We will reopen, refreshed, in July 2013 with a brand new Spies Exhibition, for all the family to enjoy – even if some parts of the museum are still a building site!
As the country counts down to the Olympics and Paralympics we’ll be looking a little further ahead, to 2014, we hope you’ll mark this landmark centenary with us.
Top image ‘British tanks and troops parade past the Bethlem Royal Hospital, later to become the Imperial War Museum’. Bottom image ‘Image showing the concept of the new Central Hall and terrace displays’ (Credit Foster + Partners). Images courtesy of Imperial War Museums.

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