Since the new version of the internationally renewed First World War museum, In Flanders Fields, opened in early June, I have been fortunate to be there on three occasions. The first two were for work, as we ended up filming a piece in the museum with one of the curators for the new WW1 series I have been working on. But those early trips gave me a chance to have a quick look around and see what was new, and what had changed.
I had read much about the new version of the museum, much of it speculation. I was expecting, however, a considerable ‘wow’ when I visited it, but must say on those first two brief stops that ‘wow’ was not there. It was impressive, there was more space, less of a ‘message’ but much of the material on show was not new; it was either from the old versions of the museum or from some of it’s temporary exhibitions such as ‘The Last Witness’ (which by the way was the best museum exhibition I have ever visited).
The biggest change that was apparent was the space; there is much more space to move around. The museum also more comfortably fits into the structure of the Cloth Hall, with some very fine wooden staircases at the entrance and exit, along with good facilities and a very nice cafe. One doesn’t feel confined, as before – even when the museum is busy. The exhibits follow a logical semi-chronological approach, with the background to the war, the first shots in Belgium (a most welcome display as few British visitors will know about this), and then the formation of the Ypres Salient following the First Battle of Ypres. After that it follows subjects rather than a time-frame; trench warfare, tunnelling, propaganda plus the cost of war and the aftermath.
Some features of the displays are worth mentioning: the dramatised recordings of personal testimony where a modern actor speaks a diary, a letter or an account, a very good and quite moving. The film about Passchendaele focuses on the view of the battle from medical personnel – a novel approach, which works. Uniforms are displayed traditionally but also in a very different way – ‘Airfix’ style (as keen be seen by the photo above) is the best way I can describe it. I was also pleased to see Battlefield Archaeology feature very heavily, with a permanent display about the work of the Diggers at Yorkshire Trench and Dugout: indicating as to how important this mode of studying the Great War has become.
Two completely new features were my favourites; in the final area of the museum are a series of touch-screens (like big iPads) where you can view modern aerial photograph of the Flanders battlefields and switch into wartime aerials of the same place and follow ‘hot spots’ which contain extra info and photos about specific places around Ypres. This system still has a few teething problems but it is unique in any WW1 museum, and something easy to get lost in!
The other new feature which I liked most of all was the soundtrack that plays all the time you are in the museum. It is a specially commissioned piece by British indie band Tindersticks. Many might fear that this music would be distracting, perhaps even annoying after a while; in fact, I found it hugely complimentary to the whole visitor experience and also incredibly moving. I wish they would put it on the IFF website!
Modern museums about the Great War often leave me cold, but this new version of In Flanders Fields is a worthwhile experience for visitors old and new; on my last trip when I did the museum ‘properly’ I easily spent three hours inside; that in itself speaks volumes. Make sure it is on your list of things to do next time you are in Ypres.