Baghdad 5 March 2007 comes to London

This was once a car in Iraq. Photo courtesy of The Imperial War Museum

Chubby pink hands play with rusty red metal, perplexed by what lays before them. “Mummy, is it a car?” asks one of the children. And there starts a Conversation on Iraq.

The object was a car once, until it was caught in a suicide bomb in Baghdad three years ago, and transformed into an exhibit at the Imperial War Museum London.

It sits uncomfortably amongst traditional tools of aggression, a V2 rocket here and a Spitfire there, providing a unique insight into a conflict to which many have become numb.

The car represents the 37-38 people killed around it on 5 March 2007 on Al-Mutanabbi Street, a book market which formed the heart of Iraqi cultural life. Like the victims, the identity of the car cannot be accurately pinpointed owing to the force of the bomb, leaving children and adults alike to wonder and question.

For selected weekends this month and in November there will be someone there to answer their questions, “to try and build up as many different layers of interpretation based on daily life in Baghdad,” says Grant Rogers, Informal Learning Manager at the museum.

Future guests will include a bomb disposal expert, a soldier, a UN worker, and Iraqi citizens. The aim is not to provoke a reaction, but to use the car as a conversation piece, to respond to visitors curiosity and allow them to look. As Grant puts it, “the most interactive device you can ever has is a human being,” and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

Visitor Fiona Brent, 38, found the car shocking “because it shows the devastating effect of modern warfare.” Her nephew was drawn to the alien object, and although it was tricky to explain, Fiona felt the car is an important addition to the museum’s collection.

Andy Shefford, 36, was perplexed by the heap of metal, but found that “if you understand the circumstances surrounding it definitely gives you an idea of the sort of destruction that these things can reap.”

Both visitors regularly see car bomb images on the British news; burning cars as metaphors for those who have died. But it is only the sobering experience of standing next to the ravaged car that brings it into our sphere of reference, where “people have really been investigating the answers” provided by Grant and his team.

Two years ago, placing such a provocative object centre stage would not have been possible at the Imperial War Museum. But thanks to the bravery of new Director Diane Lees, the museum is putting a much stronger emphasis on the civilian, and bravely exploring modern conflict. The museum invites you to go and join in the conversation, in their ‘classroom without walls’.

Conversations on Iraq will take place the weekends of 20-21 and 27-28 November between 11am-12.30pm and 2pm-4pm.