Guns and Roses: The Imperial War Museum Has Appointed Its First Female Director Diane Lees. Juliet Gardiner Asks Her about Her Vision for the Museum in London and Its Outposts around the Country

By Gardiner, Juliet | History Today, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Guns and Roses: The Imperial War Museum Has Appointed Its First Female Director Diane Lees. Juliet Gardiner Asks Her about Her Vision for the Museum in London and Its Outposts around the Country


Gardiner, Juliet, History Today


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'Given how few women museum directors there are in the world, perhaps it is surprising that the Imperial War Museum appointed me,' concedes Diane Lees who took up the post of Director of the IWM's five museums--the main site in Lambeth Road, south-east London, HMS Belfast moored in the Thames, Duxford near Cambridge, housing aircraft and other large exhibits, the Cabinet War Rooms deep beneath Whitehall, and the newest addition to the stable, Imperial War Museum North, Greater Manchester, a stunning silver building designed by Daniel Libeskind which opened in 2002.

It would seem an understatement: the immediate impression of the IWM cannot fail to be of 'toys for boys', the approach dominated by huge double-barrelled battleship guns, while once inside the military hardware is almost overwhelming, tanks and anti-tank devices to the right, more tanks and a massive V2 rocket to the left, a submarine ahead, with First World War bi-planes suspended from the ceiling. Yet despite a current climate in which military activities seem particularly problematic and troubling, the IWM is doing well--across the five sites there were almost two million visitors with 750,000 visiting the old Bedlam hospital where the main museum is housed and where the new director has her office. 'Last October half-term was the most successful ever,' Diane Lees says, '36,000 visitors in a week.'

Even before it opened in its original home in London's Crystal Palace in June 1920, the IWM's first director, Sir Martin Conway, warned that 'England is filled with botched institutions due to the fact that before they were set up their scope and purpose were not sufficiently examined' and that to avoid the IWM 'becom[ing] another white elephant', it must 'be a living organism of continuing utility to future generations.' So, in taking up the job which she started in October 2008, Lees faces the Museum's perennial conundrum: how to move forward, attracting and sustaining a new generation of visitors while still respecting the purpose for which the IWM was established, to be a repository for veterans in which the memory of the Great War could be kept alive--no one knew at the time that the 'war to end wars' would be but an intermission between hostilities. But while it is named as a war museum, the IWM has never been purely a military museum; its definition of veterans includes those on the Home Front in all wars as well as those on the battlefield, civilians and men and women on active service. And of course veterans are no longer confined to the First or the Second World Wars. Korea, Suez, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq all sent--and send--home coffins, casualties and veterans.

'We are not afraid to deal with controversial and difficult issues, as our Holocaust exhibition has shown,' says Diane Lees 'and increasingly we need to think about how we deal with the concept of genocide, but though museums are about building collections, the definition of a collection is expanding all the time. It's not just about objects, it's essentially about experiences too. "Operation Homecoming", a US project in development stages, is a good example. It's an education project about the troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and when there is enough information from that, then we can interpret in the museum that experience of the British troops. Museums are based on collections and assembling those collections is our way of defining contemporary warfare.'

'I was appointed, I think, because the IWM Trustees recognised the value of all the museum possesses and does, but were also aware of the need to reposition it to attract a new generation of museum-goers for whom the First and Second World Wars are no longer part of their living memory,' Lees explains.

The IWM has long been pushing the boundaries of the definition of war, locating it firmly in wider societal concerns, so that alongside the more predictable recent exhibitions on 'Spitfire Summer', 'D-Day' and 'Submarines', the 1940s House, star of the Channel Four series, was meticulously reconstructed in the Museum, later to be incorporated into the successful and long running 'Children's War' exhibition, while 'Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities' had at its core some of the paintings and drawings in the Museum's extensive art collection, and 'Women at War', 'Camouflage' and 'War Posters: Weapons of Mass Communication' were interrogations into perceptions of conflict as much as assemblages of artefacts. …

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