Peace breaks out at War Museum

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The Independent Online
THE IMPERIAL War Museum in London is casting off its dusty image as a mausoleum of battlefield memories and reinventing itself as a chronicler of popular history.

The 82-year-old institution's latest attempt to give itself more appeal to the young is an exhibition charting the emergence of "lifestyle" in post-war Britain and featuring memorabilia from "icons" such as Marilyn Monroe, Roger Bannister and Elvis Presley.

Entitled "From the Bomb to the Beatles", the exhibition, which opens in March, spans the years between the end of the Second World War and the death of Churchill in 1965.

It will encompass film, art, design, politics and social change, as it sets out to explore how people in Britain were affected by the legacy of war and how the country's increasing prosperity and optimism was tempered by the ever-present threat of the nuclear bomb.

This is not the first time the museum has ventured into peacetime territory: part of its permanent exhibition covers life in the inter-war period and two years ago it hosted "Forties Fashion and the New Look", a portrayal of social history as seen through fashion.

Indeed, Christopher Dowling, the museum's spokesman, maintains the museum is far removed from the hotbed of macho militarism that its name would suggest.

According to Mr Dowling, the former Labour leader Michael Foot was put off from making a visit by the combination of the words "Imperial", "War" and "Museum", but became a convert after visiting the place for himself. Bruce Kent, a former leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is also said to be a strong supporter.

However, the sheer scope of the exhibition is unprecedented, as is the extent to which the museum is moving away from its core remit of the study of the history of conflict and its original purpose of recording the events of the First World War.

Mr Dowling said its coverage was being extended to appeal to younger generations and to tie in with the school curriculum, a change in emphasis made possible in part by the comparative youth of its staff.

"In the past, it was the military side that interested people but now there is a growing fascination with the way people lived," he said. "If you study war you can't just start and stop when the conflict does - you have to put it into context. Besides, the period we are covering was dominated by the Cold War and isolated wars were going on around the world."

The exhibition, designed by Sir Terence Conran and CD Partnership, will begin with screenings of newsreels about the end of the war in a replica 1945 cinema and continue through a series of sets, including a Forties home, a nuclear bunker and a Fifties coffee bar.

Among the highlights are artefacts from the 1951 Festival of Britain, which set the design agenda for subsequent years, and memorabilia, including the stopwatch used to time Roger Bannister's four-minute mile in 1954, a Beatles suit which belonged to John Lennon and a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Angela Godwin, the organiser, said one aim was to show how the shift from austerity to affluence changed lives and aspirations. "We wanted to document the emergence of a new youthful and confident generation that rejected the glamour of the Forties and Fifties icons and identified with the working-class heroes who peopled the films and drama of the new realism," she said.

The sheer breadth of the exhibition, however, has prompted cultural commentators to renew calls, first made several years ago, for a name change at the museum on the grounds that it is no longer a museum of war, never mind imperial.

"The name conjures up an image which belongs somewhere before the First World War - it's impractical and has no relevance today," said Simon Tait, author of Palaces of Discovery: the Story of Britain's Museums. "Since the museum was created the whole perception of war has changed and I think that the organisers of this exhibition are only too well aware of that. They are trying to do exhibitions that are relevant to today and tomorrow but the name doesn't help at all. I hope it is something the Government might address."

According to Tony Thorne, a broadcaster on popular culture, the problem with the name is that it implies a celebration of war. "If people want the museum be a magnificent monument to Britain's past, they should keep the name, but if they are really determined to become a vague post-modern entertainment centre bound up with `the heritage experience' then they should rename it something like `The Conflict Experience'," he said.

However, he said, recent history was a warning against moving too quickly. "In the Eighties the word museum was seen as a turn-off and people came up with heritage but now museums are back in fashion."

Recently it was suggested that the Victoria and Albert Museum should be renamed, because "V&A was too C&A". But the mood among curators at the Imperial War Museum is not for change. "The name is not something people read too much," Mr Dowling said. "A new name would cause a great deal of confusion - it would be hard to come up with something that summed up the wide range of subjects we cover."

Indeed with the announcement tomorrow by Chris Smith, Culture secretary, that the Imperial War Museum-North, the institution's planned new pounds 28m branch in Manchester, has finally been given the go-ahead, the name looks likely to stick - at least for a while.

From The Bomb To The Beatles opens on 25 March.