Visit to the Imperial War Museum North by Kimberly Burrows
August 26, 2014

Imperial war museum
Picture from Info Britain Website 

I recently visited the Imperial War Museum North along with the Art Galleries and Museums group, consisting of service users from the Henshaws Society for Blind People Manchester resource centre, as part of their monthly trip out to art galleries, museums and heritage sites – for an accessible audio described tour and object handling session. This was my first outing with the group, and I enjoyed it immensely!

The group was divided into three smaller groups in order to rotate around each of the three ‘stations’ that were available to us. The three different stations consisted of a touch and handling session of objects from the First World War, an audio described painting produced in 1915 by Gilbert Rogers and an audio described and tactile bronze memorial plaque from inside the ‘From Street to Trench: A War that Shaped a Region’ special exhibition. The first station that I attended was the touch and handling session of specially selected artifacts from the First World War, not on display.

from street to trenches picture

Picture from Imperial War Museum Website

This was located inside the Libeskind Rooms with background provided for each object by Martin Skelton. Some tape recordings were also played before the artefacts were passed around to the rest of the group. The first object was that of a Munitions’ Factory Staff Award; a circular medal, engraved on the back with text, surrounded by two laurel leaves. The medal is suspended from a royal blue silk ribbon and brass pin. It was awarded on December 21st, 1918, to D. Sewell for producing the highest average output of shells.

Munitons medal

Picture by Kimberly of the Munitions Medal

The next object to be passed around was a trench art ring – a brass finger ring associated with, and possibly made by, Sergeant W. Skinner of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Engraved with ‘Ypres’ located in West Flanders, Belgium. This was followed by a trench art bullet, featuring a cross crowning its wide end. It had a height of 45 mm, a width of 12 mm and a depth of 8mm. This was one of my favourite artefacts from the touch and handling session, as something quite beautiful was created from an object of destruction; a flicker of hope in the war and beauty from within the battlefield.

Trench art bullet

Picture by Kimberly of the Trench Art Bullet

It was also very tactile and easy to acknowledge its familiar shape. The fourth and final object, to be described by Martin and passed around to the group, was a Princess Mary Christmas Box from December 1914. Princess Mary had collected funds from the general public by putting out an advertisement and the purpose was to create a ‘gift from the nation’ to everyone wearing the King’s uniform. The contents of the box included 1oz of tobacco and 20 cigarettes, both incased in yellow monogrammed wrappers along with an accompanying letter of how the officer should behave while on active duty.

Princess Mary Christmas Box

Picture by Kimberly of the Princess Mary Christmas Box

After the touching and handling session, the group and I rotated to the next station of a painting, produced in 1915 by Gilbert Rogers, located outside the Main Exhibition space with audio description provided by Carisse Foster. Gilbert Rogers was the lead artist commissioned in 1918 to produce work for the medical section of the Imperial War Museum.

Ypres Gilbert Rogers Painting
Picture by Kimberly of the Ypres Painting by Gilbert Rogers

The huge 11 by 15 foot canvas depicts the Royal Army Medical Corps along with the British Red Cross Society, collecting and transporting British troops who were injured during the first Battle of Ypres, in 1914. It boasts mainly earthy tones of brown, green and black – typical camouflage colouring – with bold, contrasting areas of white bandages and red crosses. Another contrast is the quiet imagery of the foreground against the explosions and ruins shown in the background. This is the first time in 90 years that this painting has been displayed to the public again. It was originally exhibited in the Imperial War Museum of Crystal Palace, London, but a leaky roof damaged the painting and it wasn’t able to be restored until the late 1980s.

The third and final station that my group rotated to was inside the Special Exhibition showcasing the Great Gable Memorial plaque – a bronze tablet, set within a plinth, commemorating members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the Lake District who were killed in the First World War. Audio described by Camilla Thomas, she described the bronze plaque in detail and how it comprises of the 12 peaks at the top inside a model map recreation. Underneath is a tablet featuring the names of 20 walkers and climbers who lost their lives in the war. The map was extremely tactile, and the group and I were invited to touch and count the peaks as Camilla read out the names of those on the memorial plaque.

Great Gable memorial plaque

Picture by Kimberly of the Great Gable Memorial plaque

I enjoyed my first outing with the Art Galleries and Museums group a great deal. The subject matter itself was extremely fascinating, the staff were very accommodating and the audio description of paintings and objects were informative, descriptive and interesting. I especially enjoyed the handling session of a special selection of objects from the First World War; to have that extra tactile dimension while learning about the object’s origins through tape recordings and background provided by staff members was both beneficial and much appreciated!


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