Imperial War Museum North


IWM North, Daniel Libeskind, 2002. It represents a globe shattered by conflict and patched up again. With Rank Hovis in the background it also comes across as a bit Isaiah 2:4 – swords into ploughshares.

Shades of Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan as the tram carried me across sunny central Manchester and out to Salford Quays. But not quite comparable: they were on a bus, and, even in a 1961 black and white film, there was very little white visible in the city.

Is the Imperial War Museum going the way of British Home Stores? Preferring the initials to cover the changed connotations of the words they represent? But no matter – I’ve never seen a BHS store in such a great setting. This little golden triangle with the Lowry and the BBC (initials which trip off the tongue more easily than IWM) all facing each other across the ship canal – is all this regenerating Salford Quays equitably? In the sunshine it looked welcoming and prosperous with lots of people strolling beside the water. It’s very different from my stints 25 years ago at Avis Rent-a-Car or Palmolive (the first time I’d met someone called Philomena, and Harry Gregg was a security guard). I’m also visiting it in a different guise – not as a worker but as a dilettante museum-visitor and opera-goer. No sandwiches in a tupperware box for me nowadays.

But anyway . . . I came to look at the building rather than the contents, but of course I was sidetracked. Tanks and jump jets I can glide past with barely a glance, but I found myself ensnared by posters and drawings such as the German posters from 1918-20 when revolution was in the air: the posters warning of the “dangers” of Bolshevism and anarchy were chaotic and messy in design and outline compared to those urging men to join the Freikorps or the Wehrmacht. I took some rubbish photos just to remind myself:

Then at the lowest (in both senses) part of the museum with displays from WW II I noticed some copies of sketches by Violette Rougier Lecoq from her incarceration in Ravensbrück camp. They were so poignant and dreadful; I could only bear to photograph two of them:


The Welcome almost looks like a queue of well-off women checking into a hotel, except for those “receptionist” crows waiting to peck their eyes out. The companion-piece sketch of departure was grim.

The twisted wreckage from one of the twin towers looked like nothing so much as a piece of abstract sculpture. One of those moments when you realise how crucial context is in making sense of something.

Oh, back to the building. It is a complete sensory experience. The upper floor slopes down slightly, so that when you reach the lowest point you are in the midst of the Holocaust, where the temperature is lower. The layout is deliberately disorientating, but should you expect to be comfortable while viewing other people’s terrors and deaths? I entered from the ship canal side, and it was like going into a bunker. I thought I would be interested, but I wasn’t expecting to be so fascinated.

And there were cormorants diving in the canal.

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