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Revamped London museum remembers WWI lives in technicolour

The Imperial War Museum in London reopens its doors Saturday after a $70-million refit, with a new permanent exhibition to the experiences of Britons and Commonwealth soldiers in World War I.

LONDON: The Imperial War Museum in London reopens its doors Saturday after a £40-million ($70-million) refit, with a new permanent exhibition to the experiences of Britons and Commonwealth soldiers in World War I. One hundred years after the start of the 1914-1918 conflict, curators have harnessed modern technology to create a multi-sensory experience for a new generation of visitors.

More than 1,300 objects are on display in the new World War I galleries, interspersed with original footage of soldiers trudging through mud on the battlefield and interactive screens detailing the Allies' military triumphs -- and disasters. In a replica trench, shadows of helmeted troops looking out over barbed wire fencing dance across the walls to the sound of quiet conversations, the patter of falling rain and bursts of distant gunfire.

"It will be something of an assault on the senses," Paul Cornish, an historian at the Imperial War Museum, said. "It has a black and white image, the First World War, of mud and trenches. There's a great deal more to it than that. People will find it a much more colourful and in many ways strange experience than they expect."

The Imperial War Museum was established in 1917, a year before fighting ended and with the Allies' victory far from assured, and opened its doors in 1920. It was intended to be a place where the experiences of ordinary civilians and soldiers could be remembered, and their sacrifices commemorated.

The new galleries take visitors on a chronological journey, starting with an animated summary of the tensions between European countries and then Britain's declaration of war against Germany on August 4, 1914. Trinkets, diaries and letters tell the personal stories of the soldiers recruited from across the British Empire, while uniforms and military hardware track the battles and strategies behind Britain's war machine.

One sign on display was once fixed to the wall of a trench and reads "Suicide Corner", a symbol of the gallows humour that helped many soldiers get through the day. There are numerous propaganda posters, used to encourage men to join the army before conscription began in 1916, and evidence of their huge success.

Among the exhibits is a letter written by a nine-year-old boy from Dublin, offering his services as a military dispatch rider. Alfie Knight says that despite his age, he can "ride jolley (sic) quick on my bicycle", adding that "I am a good shot with a revolver" who would not let the Germans stop him.

The galleries also remember the contribution of those back in Britain, from rationing, the restriction of civil liberties and long hours spent working in munitions factories. Although there was a strong sense of patriotism in Britain, there were several strikes, while in 1916 there was an uprising in Ireland, which was at the time ruled by London.

"Each of the objects on display will give a voice to the people who created them, used them or cared for them," said Diane Lees, director-general of the museum. Visitors "will learn of the terrible strain the war placed on people and communities", she said.

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