I’ve always enjoyed, if that’s the right word, visits to London’s Imperial War Museum, and not just because it’s free, though that helps. Obviously much of the subject matter is pretty grim, but I usually come away feeling that I’ve learned something new – one exhibition that particularly sticks in the mind was about camouflage, which sounds dull but certainly wasn’t the way they told it. And because it’s located rather off the beaten track in slightly edgy Lambeth rather than, say, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, you can actually go during the school holidays without queuing for ages and then jostling to look at the exhibits, as tends to be the case at the Natural History Museum.
Now we learn that the museum no longer wishes to be known by its full name, but as IWM. I suppose the word ‘imperial’ has all the wrong connotations, as no doubt the focus groups told the brand consultants. And ‘war’ is pretty ugly, too. Even the word ‘museum’ is out of vogue: Bristol’s excellent (and very new) M Shed could easily be the name of a nightclub, but a museum it is, albeit one with lots of electronic bells and whistles.
But I’d be prepared to bet that it won’t stick, and that in ten years’ time if you ask the average resident of SE1 for directions to IWM you’ll get a blank look. Why should that be when, for instance, V&A works perfectly? I think it’s partly because V&A is easy to say, and was in use as an affectionate nickname before the marketing folk got their hands on it, and partly because ‘Victoria and Albert’ gives you no real clue as to what’s inside. For me, IWM is rather clumsy on the tongue, and sounds more like a multinational than a museum – and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with its full name (or especially ‘The War Museum’, its shortened form), you know what you’re going to find there.
Still in London SE1, and still on the subject of tinkering with names, the South Bank Centre’s decision some time back to rechristen itself Southbank Centre always struck me as odd because it runs counter to the way in which you pronounce it, which is as three words. Maybe when it comes to the next brand revamp they’ll revert to the original – if you hang around long enough, fashions tend to come full circle.