Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Imperial War Museum

Off to the Imperial War Museum, which has recently been redeveloped. They have dug an extra level out of the floor, so that the interior space is now taller. "Dig-down extensions" are popular with the residents of London, because it's a clever way of creating more space without extending the building horizontally. It's also a good way of creating somewhere to house the serving staff - they're doomed if there's a house fire, but they're probably not on the electoral register, so they're basically not people, right? - and if you're a Russian gangster it's a good place to put your torture room.

Compare the headline image with this shot I took back in 2009, and notice how the distinctive entrance doors used to lead straight into the hall, without any steps:

That was shot with a Contax 35-70mm, the other images were taken with a fisheye lens, and then I digitally stretched them out with a powerful computer whilst listening to ambient music. The exhibits have been rejigged, and because it was the opening day everything was packed, so I only had a chance to skim the surface. Skim the surface and photograph it. Photography is all about surfaces. Unless you are an endoscoper, in which case you do in fact go under the skin, literally so.

The museum now has a large exhibition on the Great War, with some nifty new screens. It is the hundredth anniversary of the war. We won! The National War Museum, as it was then called, was founded in 1917 in order to document the Great War. I wonder if the name irritated the people of Australia and New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Their sons died as well.

The building was constructed on the site of the former Bethlem Royal Hospital, a mental institution colloquially known as "bedlam". The atrium extends behind Bethlem's main building, which is the brick wall in the above images. It was opened in 1920 and given a makeover in the 1980s that added a new glass roof. Now the roof is obscured by a suspended floor, which is handy from a photographic point of view because it equalises light levels in the atrium.

This is Jeremy Deller's "5 March 2007", a car that was blown up in Iraq.

A cross-section of the new interior. A pedantic nerd might point out that the Spitfire model is wrong - it's one of the later marks, with a pair of 20mm Hispano cannon - but I am too urbane for that. Yeah, but which would win in a fight? The Harrier or the Spitfire?
The Harrier, obviously, because it's significantly quicker, it accelerates faster, it climbs at 50,000fpm to the Spitfire's 4,000fpm. Its 30mm Aden cannon would blow the Spitfire into shreds with a single hit. In theory the Spitfire's 20mm Hispano would ruin the Harrier pilot's day, and perhaps the Spitfire could evade the Harrier once or twice, but after doing so the Spitfire would have bled off a lot of speed. At that point the pilot would have to react to a threat approaching from an unexpected direction at a closing speed of 400mph.

The Imperial War Museum has a fundamental problem, one that has grown with time. When the museum was new, the British Empire was one of the driving forces of current events. It had a globe-spanning economy kept safe by the Royal Navy, which was larger and better than the competition and would remain so forevermore. At home, British novels and films had British heroes doing British things for British people, and we liked to believe that the average foreign person knew who Lord Palmerston was, and looked to Edward, Prince of Wales, for style tips.

But over the course of the twentieth century the British Empire burned out, and now we are hangers-on, guests at the top table. On a cultural level, British stars are successful in America by imitating Americans, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned Britain is a small set of national stereotypes, of no more importance than France or Germany, which in their own way suffer from the same post-imperial malaise. On an economic level there is a sense that we sold a lot of family silver to have the world's sixth or seventh-largest GDP, and that as time goes on we will fade fast. Without scale, or natural resources - the Royal Navy was built with British wood, and then powered with British coal - or a massive superweapon, or anything, what will Britain be a hundred years from now? What have we got? What will we have? And when we had it, what good did it do us? The British Empire paid for a lot of grand buildings and created a lot of peerages, but for the average British person life was six days of exhausting work, families living six to two rooms, and an early death from black lung. And for many of its subjects the Empire amounted to a series of insults and occasional massacres.

There are elements of the museum that will mean nothing to the tourists that make up the majority of its visitors - the large space given over to The Troubles would not pay its way if the museum was a commercial organisation - and conversely there is very little about (say) Vietnam, or the shooting of Osama Bin Laden, because they did not involve Britain.

Britain has managed to involve itself in most of the meaningful conflicts of the last half-century, although in saying that I ponder the question of meaning. Some of the conflicts covered by the IWM are meaningless outside Britain, although they were important in their own way; and some are covered by the IWM only because they had British involvement, not because they were objectively important. Eventually there will come a conflict that is objectively important and meaningful for the IWM's visitors, but has no obvious British involvement, and the IWM will have to decide whether to abandon the whole Imperial thing in order to avoid leaving a big blind spot in its coverage. Otherwise a hundred years from now it will have no visitors, because no-one will care that we sent fifty soldiers to help out the people of Haiti following the great storm of 2057 etc. Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis stand out as the most recent historical examples of meaningful, potentially world-changing conflicts that had no British input; the Tom Clancys of this world no doubt imagine wars to come along similar lines. In the 1990s it was fashionable to imagine a war with China, perhaps over Taiwan, or a second Korean war, and I struggle to see what good the Royal Navy could do in such a situation.

As I write these words forces affiliated with Russia appear to have shot down an airliner over Ukraine, but this kind of thing has happened before. During the Cold War there were numerous airliner shootdowns, and despite the looming threat of global nuclear war nothing happened. Nothing will continue to happen. White nations do not war against each other on their home territory any more. There is too much at stake, too many meaningful lives on the line. At the end of the Second World War the lower-class people of Britain who had actually done the fighting rose up and voted for a Labour government, a proper old-fashioned Socialist government, and in a brief burst of sentimentality the Establishment allowed it to take power; that will not happen again. There are instead designated conflict zones in which the wars take place, so that the people are meaningless and their deaths likewise.

The Imperial War Museum is just around the corner from the Heygate Estate, a popular filming location that I have visited a few times. Alas they have finally knocked it down, years after promising to do so. The problem is that poor people lived there, and if you have neither money nor weapons (which cost money) and good leadership you're at the mercy of other people and the environment. Unless there's a larger organisation that will fight for you - a political party, say - but such a thing does not exist in Britain today. And so the people of the Heygate Estate were moved out and it was knocked down, so that the people of the newly-constructed Strata building would not have to see them.

There, then

Here, now

A little slum has grown up in the Strata building's shadow, where people sell car bits and cheap chicken.