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Northern France | Northern England

Mainland Europe is pockmarked with places where the machinery of 20th century war has left its signs and its dead. Britain's physical connection with the two World Wars is mostly commemorated in junk. From the moment it was clear that WW1 was going to be long and grim, celebration of enlistment turned into anxious clinging. Letters from the front and souvenirs brought back by soldiers on leave assumed a new significance - a connection with son, husband, lover who might never come back. They were also a means of coping with the stupendous scale of the conflict. Collecting the ephemera of war became a widespread activity, a patriotic act - which, mostly unintentionally, led to the creation of the Imperial War Museum.

Installed in a former London lunatic asylum, the IWM has grown and, in recent years, opened a number of outposts. In Manchester early in July (2002) it celebrated the opening of the latest addition to its empire: IWM North. According to the press release the museum wanted to 'make its collection available to the people in the North of England'. If the first day was anything to go by, Mancunians have been craving for it: the queue was long and lasted all day. It was easy to imagine anxious discussions, behind the scenes, about overcrowding.

Daniel Libeskind's stunning building has been the most talked-about feature of this new enterprise. 'Conflict', says the architect, 'has been a constant factor of the twentieth century as the world has repeatedly fragmented into warring factions. I have imagined the globe broken into fragments and taken the pieces to form the building - three shards. Together they represent conflict on land, in the air and over water.'

What else could they do with the Harrier jet except hang it from the ceiling and call it an icon of its time?

Libeskind has described his building as 'emblematic'. But symbols are slippery servants: they shift and change their meaning, and can even flip to its opposite - from good to evil. Swastikas were once symbols of good luck. The 4-metre square swastikas projected for us in the IWM's 'earth shard' are presented as icons of evil. Someone on Radio 4's religious slot somehow saw Libeskind's fragmented globe as signifying hope for a better future. People still puzzled about shards and conflict can observe, in the museum's lobby, a series of images in which a splintered globe turns into - yes, the IWM North. This takes up more space than the exhibit explaining the causes of WW1. The V&A was criticised for advertising itself as 'ace café with museum attached'; here we have an 'ace building with museum thrown in'.

This is not Libeskind's first 'emblematic' building. It was preceded by his Jewish Museum, with its haunting empty galleries. They now house exhibits, but many people still think their emptiness was more eloquent. Whatever your taste in architecture, the building is infused with significance and meaning, not only by the very reasons for its existence but also by its location in the heart of a reunified Berlin, the original powerhouse for the assault on Jewish people during WW2. The same can't be said about the IWM North, set in a redevelopment zone beside the Manchester Ship Canal.

The Jewish museum is a difficult trick to repeat. Berlin needed a stylish, powerful and well-anchored repository to form a fitting memorial of the terrible wrong sanctioned by authorities based in the city. Manchester needs regeneration; the IWM North is certainly no representative of the millions killed or harmed by war, nor, if we look closely, is it a repository of the central meaning of war. We can enjoy Libeskind's building without buying into its concept. The concept provides the museum with useful copy, which, though sounding significant, doesn't actually mean very much. The museum's own slogan that pops up everywhere, 'War shapes lives', is equally vacuous.

Emblematic architecture apart, what exactly is a war museum? The new IWM doesn't make answering this question any easier. Most of us think we know what war is. We all have images of what it looks like and how it's fought, from films and photographs that are part of the experience of most of us. We're well loaded with preconceptions about war. So what has a war museum to offer? The answer: things.

But the objects themselves are, of course, not enough. Modern museums now try to give 'added value' in the shape of interpretative material, projects, hi-tech presentation, take-away follow-up literature, and the rest. Cultural history, say, or science may well lend themselves to presentation as entertainment. But war? Entertaining is the last thing war should be; and it should be instructive and not only as a terrible warning.

It's true that the IWM is merely preserving artefacts for posterity, not laying on military shows and arms-trader style weapon displays. So what else could they do with the Harrier jet except hang it from the ceiling, make it the first thing one sees on the way in, and call it an icon of its time? But never doubt they have an agenda. In the case of the IWM North it's to 'tell the story of how war has shaped people's lives from 1900 to the present day' - a much softer, user-friendly option than the hard (and deeply political) task of explaining what 'war' means. Despite a few 'subversive' touches, it's a very 'pro-war' project. You won't learn in this £30m museum how much of your taxes are being spent on war.

IWM North is entered through a small, scruffy, uninviting concrete (emblematic?) arch, reminiscent of entrances to nuclear bunkers up and down the country. Such an entrance hinted at dark and rightly worrying things to come. But this medium turns out to have a mixed message. For ten minutes every hour the museum turns the lights off in its single exhibition space and puts on a visually stunning multi-media show. As the lights dim, the reason for the surprising height of the ceiling, the tall blank pillars becomes clear: from all angles 60 projectors fill what amount to 20 giant screens with images and action. The space becomes a stage that you can wander around in. It's bold, it's exciting, it brings the museum into the 21st century - but oh, what a disappointment! The sound-track script is impoverished, simplistic and banal, and might as well be an advertisement for war. Someone even thought the last lines of 'In Flanders Fields' would round it all off neatly, apparently unaware that they're actually an exhortation to battle.

Cosy relationship with an atomic bomb.

So, what really is a war museum? After WW1 Ernst Friedrich set up an Anti-War Museum in Berlin. The collection contained many grim and disturbing photographs, and showed everything that the more 'patriotic' collection omitted. More importantly perhaps, Friedrich graphically demonstrated the dangerous selectivity employed in conventional collections; and he contrasted official statements with actual events. War (and the way it 'shapes our lives') is a deeply political issue. It was clear what Friedrich's position on it was - 'anti-war' wasn't even needed in the name.

IWM North's position is clear too: it's deeply committed to war - not war as an exciting and glorious activity, certainly, but war as an inevitable event that may even have beneficial spin-offs.

Standing in front of that open oven in France one can't help but think about what went on there, about the pain and misery of those who passed through its doors, and about the system that made such horror possible. Standing in front of 'WE 177' (a 400-kiloton atomic bomb 20 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) in Manchester, one only thinks how small it is. What are war museums for? Corporate growth, and perpetuating the myth that war is inevitable. Sad, isn't it.