London- and Hong Kong-based experiential designers MET Studio have completed the design of the new 480 sq m War Horse: Fact & Fiction exhibition at London’s National Army Museum in Chelsea, which is now open and is scheduled to run initially for a one year period. War Horse: Fact & Fiction, an accessible exhibition aimed at a family audience, tells the incredible real-life story of the use of horses in warfare right through British military history, tying in with the original War Horse novel by Michael Morpurgo (who has given the exhibition his support), the National Theatre’s award-winning War Horse stage production and the Steven Spielberg-directed War Horse film, now on general release.
“The exhibition is a separate entity from the book, play and film, although it was inspired primarily by the book”, explained MET Studio Associate Peter Karn. “It looks at the fascinating facts that lie behind the fiction and keeps the main focus on the story’s World War One setting, but additionally traces the story of horses in war right back to medieval times. As the original novel was based on fact, but brought to life in a hugely memorable way, so we have tried to animate this extraordinary history both artfully and evocatively.”
The key objectives of the exhibition were to create a dramatic, interactive and immersive experience for the visitor about the story of horses in war, via a series of interactive exhibits and areas, as well as through focus points that reflect the power and impact of the ‘War Horse’ story. Objects from the Museum’s archive have been interpreted and displayed in a way that brought them to life to promote a clear contextual understanding. The budget for the exhibition was not huge and so practicality and affordability were also key issues for the design team.
“For a family audience”, added MET Studio Design Director Lloyd Hicks, “it was also important to strike the right balance between creating an entertaining and enjoyable experience and not underplaying the sometimes harrowing notes from history, including the incredible statistic that over eight million horses died in the course of World War One.” The exhibition and visitor journey is split into seven main areas. These start with the introductory area, followed by ‘Requisition & Transportation’; ‘Historical Timeline’; ‘Roles’; ‘Cavalry Charge’; ‘No Man’s Land’ and finally ‘Legacy’.
The introductory area begins the exhibition and is set within a partially-enclosed circular area, dominated by a 180° curved wall, creating a deliberate moment of calm at the beginning of the exhibition. The ‘grass’ flooring and projected imagery show horses in their natural lush and tranquil environment, linking in with the beginning of the book story, where the everyday pastoral early life of the horses is dramatically contrasted with what is to come. A projected film announces the themes of the exhibition.
‘Requisition and Transportation’ provides an instant contrast to the introduction, showing the conditions in which horses were transported and in which they often died before reaching their destination. Large scale real-life imagery showing World War One horses being hoisted on and off ships is displayed against a wooden slatted wall, referencing life below decks on a transport ship. Exhibits on horse training and sport show a parallel history of how mankind has always worked with and trained horses for leisure and industrial as well as war-time use.
The exhibition then opens up into the main gallery – a long, thin space which covers a historical timeline of war horses in Britain, from medieval knights to the ‘glory days’ of the cavalry at Agincourt, the Crimea and the Boer War, before the horrors of World War One, where the old era and the modern age collided and where a war that began with cavalry charges ended with the dominance of the horses’ replacement – the tank.
For this key area, rather than using classic ‘set design’ or diorama approaches, MET Studio created a series of flowing graphic panels, which initially seem to be nothing more than a series of abstract shard-like forms, but which become more streamlined through the space and are finally revealed from the perspective of the gallery visitor looking back on the space as a huge-scale charge of horses going into battle. The panels house information, artefacts and interactive exhibits, looking at a horse’s anatomy, for example, or showing how the world looks through the eyes of a horse. The shards culminate in a sculptural area of three, white, life-size modelled cavalry horses, dramatically lit, heading up the charge and highlighting a sense of movement, drama and emotion.
There is then a change of pace as visitors enter the second partially-enclosed circular space, ‘No Man’s Land’. This is a high-impact space for pause and reflection, inspired by the terrors of World War One’s ‘No Man’s Land’ between the Allied and German trenches. The drama of the space centres on a specially-commissioned wire horse, created by Scottish artist Laura Antebi, caught in barbed wire, echoing a key moment from the ‘War Horse’ story. The horse is surrounded by a suspended curtain of fabric strands, onto which is projected a quote from the book ‘….this was what the soldiers called ‘no man’s land.’
The final area, ‘Legacy’, covers the themes of aftermath, consequences and remembrance. A mirrored box containing a huge number of white, modelled horses, with mirrored sides, represents the shocking statistic of horses lost in battle. Accounts of individual real horses are given, including those involved in heroic stories, whilst organisations involved in the care and rehabilitation of war horses are featured. On a remembrance wall, visitors can customise and name a series of horse cut outs to underline the human connection to horses.
National Army Museum Director Janice Murray said “War Horse: Fact & Fiction is a major project for the Museum and required a high impact, interactive and accessible design that appealed to our family market”, whilst Emily Butcher from the National Army Museum said that MET Studio “saw off the competition with their innovative approach to the project. We loved their creativity and unique ideas, especially the sequence of flowing graphic panels.”Location: London, UK Architect: MET Studio