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Daniel Libeskind, Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, UK

Imperial War Museum North, designed by Daniel Libeskind, 2001, Trafford Park, Manchester, UK. A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(soft music) - [Narrator] We've just walked through the Imperial War Museum North, designed by Daniel Libeskind in 2001, but it's still a radical building. - [Narrator 2] In so many ways, it looks more like a sculpture than a museum. - [Narrator] We're so far from the traditional architecture of a 19th or early 20th century museum with a grand staircase, a marble facade, something that spoke of imperial power. - [Narrator 2] And instead, we have these curving planes of aluminum. - [Narrator] In order to understand what Daniel Libeskind was trying to achieve, it makes sense to go back to the early history of this museum. The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, when the First World War was still being fought. - [Narrator 2] The first museum location was in London, although now there are five locations. - [Narrator] And the original mandate of the museum was to create a way of commemorating all aspects of British society that had contributed to the war effort. So that included airmen, and seamen, and infantry, but it also included the people on the home front who were producing munitions. - [Narrator 2] The collection was built in an interesting way. The museum advertised "The Imperial War Museum desires to receive for permanent preservation, photographs, and biographical materials printed or in manuscript of all officers and men who have lost their lives, or won distinctions during the war. Also original letters, sketches, poems, and other interesting documents sent from any of the war areas, and all kinds of mementos, even of trifling character, which may be of interest in connection with the war." - [Narrator] When you walk through the exhibits, you see large-scale objects, tanks, and airplanes, but you also see those kinds of small, more personal objects that really do bring the experience of war home. Now, initially, the museum was intended to commemorate only the First World War, but it's mandate has grown because of the many conflicts of the 20th century. And so the Imperial War Museums document wars beginning with the First World War. - [Narrator 2] Not only do we not see the columns and grand entranceway that we expect of a museum, but the entrance itself is off-kilter. And in fact, so much of the architecture feels disconcerting, feels out of balance, feels designed to disorient us. - [Narrator] Libeskind wanted to design a space that brought the personal, tragic human stories of the wars of the 20th century to visitors, and he's done that by changing the rules that have defined architectural practice for most of human history. The floors aren't flat, they fall away from you as you walk through the exhibit halls. - [Narrator 2] Both inside and outside, there appear to be pathways that lead nowhere, to dead ends. - [Narrator] And so the museum is meant to sow confusion as a strategy to begin to replicate the experiences of war. - [Narrator 2] Today, we look at this building with a metallic surface, but that wasn't the original plan. - [Narrator] Most of the museum is now clad and aluminum, but much more of the museum was meant to be concrete, initially. This was changed because of a lack of funding, but the conceptual core of the museum remains intact. Libeskind overarching idea was that the global conflicts that this museum is designed to commemorate have fractured the unity of our planet. - [Narrator 2] As we look at the exterior of the building, we can see what looked like shards that are piercing the Earth, or that appeared to have fallen from the sky. - [Narrator] When Libeskind was conceiving of this museum, he was thinking of the fracturing of the globe of the Earth, and he took a teapot, wrapped it in a bag, and let it drop from his office window to the street below. That ceramic teapot, of course, broke into a series of shards, and he took the main pieces, and used those as the conceptual framework for this building. The vertical shard, which is the shard that he intended us to enter in under, is associated with the sky. It's meant to recall the nature of aerial warfare. - [Narrator 2] Standing in the entranceway and looking up, one feels imprisoned, one feels almost the crisscrossing of airplanes in the sky above. - [Narrator] Or you might think of images of aerial bombardment from the sky looking down at targets on the Earth. The largest shard that makes up the museum is the shard that's associated with the earth. This is a large, broad, low arc, and that form shelters most of the museum and its exhibitions. The third shard is associated with water. It curves gently as well, but it curves in opposition to the earth. Its arc is upward, recalling the waves of the sea. - [Narrator 2] One of my associations is to a ship landing on the shore, being rocked by waves. - [Narrator] And this also is a reminder that the museum is located beside working docks. And in fact, up to the second World War, this was an important location for the manufacturer of military material. And one of the products that was built here were Rolls-Royce aircraft engines that were used during the Second World War. And it was for this reason that this location became an important target for Nazi bombing raids. And during the Blitz, this area was hit. And so this location and the structure are, in a sense, exhibits of the museum. - [Narrator 2] Libeskind was born in Łódź in Poland, and both of his parents were Holocaust survivors. So the experience of war is something personal for him. - [Narrator] Libeskind has created slashing marks that create a sense of energy, but also a sense of danger, and counteract the gentle curves of the shards, referencing violence and aggression. - [Narrator 2] The architecture, combined with the collection, its display, is a truly overwhelming experience. - [Narrator] And Libeskind is rightfully lauded for finding strategies so that the architecture of the museum helps to express its contents, helps to express its mandate. (soft music)