Imperial War Museum – Real to Reel – the story.

Laura Clouting, Historian at the Imperial War Museum and curator of the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies talks to us about the rationale behind the exhibition and how Bowers & Wilkins speakers have helped bring the films to life.

Now that IWM’s latest exhibition Real to Reel: A Century Of War Movies is open, it has given me a breather to make a slightly overdramatic realisation – making an exhibition is a bit like making a movie.

I was the exhibition’s curator, a word that has been adopted enthusiastically and elastically away from custodianship to imply the power of choice. We all curate music playlists, while shops curate their displays. At each of Imperial War Museums’ branches, the curatorial choices that underpin how we tell stories about war and conflict are loaded with a weighty responsibility. What will we choose to display, or to leave out? What language will we use to describe events and people, and their (sometimes inflammatory) opinions? What creative audiovisual elements will drive the story on and generate an appropriate sense of atmosphere?


The idea for an exhibition about war movies existed last year as an idea on paper. I’ll talk more about this and the movies themselves in my second blog post for Bowers & Wilkins. I will say here that we banged our heads considerably about how to slim down a story from such riches. It is a dauntingly vast subject, but its widespread appeal was a great opportunity to connect with visitors. The very nature of going to the ‘pictures’ – immersive and emotional – makes it a brilliant lure as an exhibition subject.


But exhibitions about films aren’t straightforward. You can’t assume everyone who comes will know of every film referenced, and you can’t simply overload people with film clips. Practical constraints dictate everything you can do as a curator. It’s a bit like generating lots of lovely ideas and assembling a potent arsenal of content – then actively putting it all through the mincer. You end up with 2% left that is useable. You have to accept the culling of information, objects, or audiovisual elements when up against the realities of floor space, time, and budget. Licensing costs for using film clips were particularly sobering.

The challenges flew thick and fast. We worked out the story – our ‘narrative’. Moments of emotional punch had to be soothed by snatches of lighter respite. We knew we wanted the exhibition to be object-rich. We had to go hunting for filmmaking content that we didn’t have in our collections. Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies showcases a huge variety of props, costumes, scripts, correspondence, and storyboard artwork brought together for the first time. Very helpful people tipped us off about where material might be – not always in beautifully-catalogued museum archives but often in the hands of private collectors. Major film studios were another great source of loans, and are very well-versed to the growing appetites for exhibitions about movies. Working with a brilliant in-house team, we had to work rapidly to adapt the narrative and design around the offers of loans as they came in without being drawn too far from our original aims.


The exhibition takes visitors on a journey, evoking the feel of an archive for inspirational ideas, a film set where war is reconstructed for the ‘silver screen’, and a cinema for the celebration and the criticisms levelled at war movies upon their release. Compelling pieces of audiovisual content drove the story along. Such is the quality of Bowers & Wilkins headphones, they immediately transport you away from the hubbub of the exhibition space into the snappy dialogue, dramatic action sequences, and emotional highs of classic war movie clips. When on the move through the exhibition, the soundscape, as described by Jascha Dormann, lifts you through some epic theme scores from cinema history, from Lawrence of Arabia to Das Boot and The Great Escape, proving what a mood-setter music is beyond the movies.

As a filmmaker creates his movie with no more than an idea, Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is the product of a series of decisions that started with a concept on paper last year. The exhibition conjures up an atmosphere where sound is integral to the experience. Most of all, the exhibition is an acknowledgement of the power of cinema’s stories about war, and their impressions of how it shapes and shatters lives.

Laura Clouting is a Historian at IWM London and the curator of the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies.

Read more about Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies here

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