The Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries: A New Way to Experience War and Conflict

By Alexander Stone

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London is one of the world’s leading museums of war and conflict, with a collection of over 33 million items that span from the First World War to the present day. The museum aims to tell the stories of people who have lived, fought and died in wars involving Britain and the Commonwealth, and to explore how war shapes lives, societies and cultures. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions, events and activities that engage and educate the public on various aspects of war and conflict.

One of the most exciting and innovative developments at the IWM is the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, which will open to the public in late 2023. These galleries, made possible by a generous donation from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, will be the UK’s first to explore how artists, filmmakers and photographers bear witness to, document and tell the story of war and conflict, and demonstrate how artistic interpretation can uniquely shape our understanding of war. The galleries will showcase some of the most iconic and influential works from the IWM’s vast and unique collection of art, film and photography, as well as new acquisitions and commissions, spanning from the First World War to the present day.

What to Expect from the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries

The Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries will cover up to 1000m2 of the IWM’s third floor, and will feature over 500 works chosen for display. The galleries will reflect the IWM’s expansive remit of global conflict from 1914 to the present day, and will include a broad range of works from diverse artists, filmmakers and photographers. The galleries will also feature the Screening Space and the Art Box, two dedicated areas that will show feature-length films and documentaries, and contemporary moving-image artworks, respectively.

The galleries will be divided into four thematic sections, each exploring a different aspect of war and conflict through art, film and photography. These are:

  • Perspectives and Frontiers: This section will examine how artists, filmmakers and photographers have represented and challenged the dominant narratives and perspectives of war and conflict, and how they have explored the frontiers and the boundaries of war, such as the physical, the psychological, the ethical and the technological.
  • Mind and Body: This section will explore how artists, filmmakers and photographers have depicted and expressed the impact of war and conflict on the mind and the body, and how they have addressed the issues of trauma, injury, disability, mental health and resilience.
  • Power and Resistance: This section will investigate how artists, filmmakers and photographers have exposed and confronted the power structures and the ideologies behind war and conflict, and how they have documented and supported the resistance and the dissent against war and conflict.
  • Memory and Legacy: This section will analyse how artists, filmmakers and photographers have commemorated and memorialised the victims and the survivors of war and conflict, and how they have influenced and shaped the memory and the legacy of war and conflict.

Highlights from the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries

The Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries will display some of the most renowned and remarkable works from the IWM’s collection, as well as some new and exciting works that have never been seen before. Some of the highlights include:

  • Gassed by John Singer Sargent: This is a monumental painting that depicts a group of British soldiers blinded by mustard gas during the First World War. The painting, which measures over six metres long, is one of the most powerful and poignant representations of the horrors of war, and it moved contemporary audiences to tears when it was first exhibited in 1919. The painting has recently undergone significant conservation work, and will be displayed for the first time since then in the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries.
  • They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson: This is an award-winning film that reinterprets original archive footage from the First World War into an unprecedented, colourful and immersive depiction of the war. The film, which was commissioned by the IWM and directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Peter Jackson, uses state-of-the-art technology and techniques to restore, colourise and enhance the footage, and to add sound and voices to the silent images. The film, which was released in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the war, is a stunning and moving tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in the war.
  • Queen and Country by Steve McQueen: This is a contemporary artwork that commemorates the British soldiers who died in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2009. The artwork, which was created by the renowned artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, consists of a set of wooden cabinets that contain sheets of facsimile postage stamps, each bearing the portrait of a fallen soldier. The artwork, which was first exhibited in 2007, is a poignant and personal memorial that invites the viewers to reflect on the lives and the losses of the soldiers, and to question the role and the value of art in war and conflict.
  • Olive Edis Collection: This is a collection of photographs taken by Olive Edis, one of the first women in Britain to build a career in freelance photography. Edis was also one of the first women to be commissioned as an official war photographer, and she travelled to France and Belgium in 1919 to document the aftermath of the First World War. Her photographs capture the scenes and the people of the war-ravaged regions, as well as the role and the contribution of women in the war effort. Her photographs are remarkable for their technical quality, artistic flair and social significance.

About the Blavatnik Family Foundation

The Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries have received generous support from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the predominant funder of the project. The Blavatnik Family Foundation is an active supporter of world-renowned educational, scientific, cultural and charitable institutions, and is headed by Sir Leonard Blavatnik, the global industrialist and philanthropist. Sir Len Blavatnik said: “I have long taken a special personal interest in the history of conflict, and the experience of war. I am delighted that my Family Foundation has been able to support this historic new development at the IWM, which confirms its importance as a world leader in this field.”

Visit the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries

The Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries will open to the public in late 2023, and will be free to enter, making more of the IWM’s world-class collection available and accessible to all. The galleries will offer a new and unique way to experience war and conflict, through the eyes and the voices of the artists, filmmakers and photographers who have witnessed, documented and interpreted it. The galleries will also challenge and inspire the visitors to think and feel differently about war and conflict, and to question and understand its impact and its relevance in the world today. To find out more about the Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, and to plan your visit, please visit the IWM website.