Imperial War Museum, Second World War Galleries Ralph Appelbaum Associates

Imperial War Museum, Second World War Galleries

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RAA developed the Second World War Galleries in parallel with the designers of Imperial War Museum’s new Holocaust Galleries which opened on the same day.

Close collaboration between the designers ensured a unified, coherent and fresh interpretation of these key events in our history.

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RAA’s design has shaped the Galleries in a way that gives greatest meaning to storylines and the collections:

  • Reinforcing the presence of people, both in groups and as individuals linked to specific stories, acknowledges that the diversity of individual experience is vital to any understanding of what happened.
  • A distinct sequence of spaces means that each gallery has a different design inspiration, and, consequently, look and feel, creating marked thresholds between different kinds of experiences.
  • Framing views between the galleries reinforces the idea that the Second World War is a continuous narrative of interdependent and intersecting events, people and ideas. This connected visitor journey allows time to unfold in a linear manner, while letting themes connect and cross over.
  • A black box approach within the exhibition provides maximum flexibility for collections displays and AV installations, and ensures that the exhibits are the focus for visitors.
  • Architecturally scaled media creates moments of intense action, such as a bombing raid, as well as moments that transport visitors to unfamiliar locations.
  • Dramatic images drawn from Imperial War Museums’ archives will retell events of the Second World War.


The exhibition narrative is expressed through six Galleries, arranged in a roughly chronological sequence, beginning in 1930 and ending after the war in 1949:

Gallery 1) How did the Second World War begin?
Gallery 2) How did war spread across Europe?
Gallery 3) What did war mean for Britain?
Gallery 4) How did the war turn global?
Gallery 5) How was the war won and lost?
Gallery 6) How did the war change the world?

The shifting and expanding scale of the conflict is represented in a sequence of distinct gallery spaces. The story begins in the 1930s, encouraging visitors to consider not just the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, but Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and Italy’s occupation of Abyssinia. We then move to the familiar streets of Britain before once again extending to the wide horizons of a global war in Russia, North Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Imperial War Museum, Second World War Galleries Ralph Appelbaum Associates

The design of each gallery evokes these different environments through the use of immersive media, architecturally scaled graphics, and audio-scapes. Combined, these spaces convey the sheer complexity and interdependency of global events, and ask visitors to consider their tremendous impact on societies and individuals. Though the conflict will soon pass out of living memory, leaving us without the first-hand testimony of its veterans, eyewitnesses and survivors, these monumental new Galleries will help ensure that the experiences of those generations are never forgotten.


The scale and ambition of the project places London’s Imperial War Museum in a globally unique position, becoming the first museum in the world to have both dedicated Second World War and Holocaust Galleries. RAA’s work on the Second World War Galleries broadens the context of the Imperial War Museum’s traditional story by emphasizing the global nature of the conflict and reflecting the enduring impact this pivotal moment of history still has on Britain and its world role in the twenty-first century. The Galleries incorporate well-known, familiar collections alongside material displayed by Imperial War Museums for the first time.

A recent YouGov poll of British adults carried out for IWM found that knowledge of the global nature of the Second World War story is under-appreciated across all age groups, particularly younger generations, with less than half of 16-44 year-olds knowing that India was part of the allied war effort during the Second World War, and only 58% of 16-24 year olds knowing that Japan was Britain’s enemy.

Taking a more global approach to the Second World War and exploring conflict zones across the world, IWM’s Second World War Galleries highlight how the Second World War affected people from all over the world – from London, Russia and New Zealand to the Philippines and China – telling the vast extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Featuring over 1,500 artefacts and using the full range of modern display techniques, the new Galleries engage a new generation of museum visitors with this complex and formative period of history.


Imperial War Museum, Second World War Galleries Ralph Appelbaum Associates

The design challenge lay in presenting more than 1500 items and personal stories from over 80 countries in an engaging, human-focused way without overwhelming the visitor. Our design approach was led by the idea of ‘Perspectives’, focusing on how the war was witnessed in different ways by communities and individuals across the world. Our design utilizes large-scale media and graphic installations to evoke these multiple perspectives, allowing the exhibition narrative to be told by those who witnessed the events rather than by a more traditional ‘museum voice’.

Architecturally-scaled media moments transport visitors to unfamiliar locations, putting them in the shoes of those who lived through the Second World War. Vast video screens of the landscapes that soldiers would have experienced transport visitors to the Philippines, Egypt, Ukraine and the Atlantic. Elsewhere, visitors witness an aerial dogfight overhead as if they were civilians in the Battle of Britain.

A color-coded graphic system breaks up the visitor experience into digestible sections, helping to contextualize the varied objects on display. To reinforce the presence of people, 100 green plaques are dedicated to individuals from around the world who experienced the Second World War. At first interspersed to avoid information overload, these media and graphic installations multiply as visitors journey through the Galleries, providing a unifying link between visually-distinct galleries and provoking deeper thinking about the connections between the War and today’s world.

Imperial War Museum, Second World War Galleries Ralph Appelbaum Associates


Exhibition Design: Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA)
Architects: Dannatt Johnson Architects
Media Production: Ay-Pe
Lighting Design: DHA Lighting
Fabricators: Scena

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