Once Upon a Wartime brings five 20th-century children’s stories about the experience of war to life in a forthcoming exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. The exhibition, designed by Pippa Nissen Studio, uses the books: War Horse; Carrie’s War; The Machine Gunners; The Silver Sword and Little Soldier to provide an insight into the reality behind the fiction. Nissen’s role has been to create a unified approach that brings the fictional stories into the detailed and realistic settings required by the museum’s educative mission. ‘Working with the experts from the Imperial War Museum, we had to find a balance between engaging, entertaining and educating children without scaring them,’ she says.
The architects rented a warehouse space in East London for the project and – with the help of a team of architecture students from Kingston University and the Bartlett – produced models of three stories in four months. Working with the experts from the museum and using its massive archives, Nissen and her team determined the landscapes, constructions and materials needed for each story. The models were made in cardboard, clay and plaster before being cast in silicone rubber. The silicone was then used as a negative to cast the final model in plaster. ‘We wanted to avoid making them too dolls housey and quaint,’ says Nissen. ‘If they were cast and monochrome, the children’s imagination could do the rest – making them technicolour.’ The resultant models are simple yet detailed, and disarmingly beautiful.
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982, looks at the horrors of the First World War through the eyes of the horse. A play of the book has wowed audiences at the National Theatre for the last three years and a Steven Spielberg-directed movie of it is due in cinemas later this year.
The model used here is a recreation of World War One trenches. It was researched from the construction manuals in the museum archive. The German trenches are wider than the Allies, and situated on higher ground. The model, divided into six parts, slopes gently to the narrow, plank-clad Allied trenches across a bombed out no-mans-land. The backdrop to this will be video imagery of actual WWI battlefields and specially commissioned photographs of mud. The playfulness and craft of the models belie the academic rigour of realising them.
For The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier’s 1956 book, Nissen used the devastation of Warsaw to provide context for the model. It cuts a section through the shell of a house and street to reveal the warren of spaces the characters occupied. Dust and debris scatters the model, makeshift furniture sits in the basement, the bricks on the walls are imperfect and cracked.
In providing this hyperreal image of the set for the book the young audience can decipher the landscape on a scale they are familiar with. ‘For all the models we had to focus on the detail at a tiny scale,’ says Joel Cady who ran the project with Nissen. ‘Children will be aware of that and it will speak to them.’
The Machine Gunners model is the most theatrical of the three. The 1975 Robert Westall novel is set in North Wales, so Nissen instructed museum photographers to take photographs of the trees and landscapes described in the book. This is then abstracted into laser-cut panels that build up in three layers. The bunker around which the narrative is set appears in 3D against the rest of the 2D landscape.
The room designed for Carrie’s War, the 1973 tale of child evacuees by Nina Bawden, will be framed by a blank proscenium arch through which you enter a kitchen. This careful balance of theatrics with the uncanny reflects the dialogue between the reality of history and the fictional narrative. The kitchen will be stocked with rations and contains such artefacts as ration books. The set helps prove the context of the fiction as fact. It’s educational, but entertaining as well.
The museum had experts for everything,’ says Nissen. ‘Every detail down to the colours in the wallpaper is authentic.’ The design of the exhibition displays a firm belief in the strength of children’s imagination. The spatial arrangement of the rooms is irregular, resulting in a sense of dynamism and adventure. ‘The spaces were conceived as immersive,’ says Nissen. ‘Sometimes they reveal the history behind the story and sometimes they are more emotional to capture the imagination and create a metaphor for part of the story.’
The ambition of delivering an idea of a horrific, incomprehensible situation to children is not to be underestimated. The combination of painstaking research, meticulous design and sheer hard work is likely to ensure that this exhibition will be engaging, understandable and enjoyable, rather than patronising or overly academic.
Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children, Imperial War Museum, London. 11th February to 30th October