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The off road vehicle helping to tell the story of the Aid Worker

photo of a white Land Rover in a museum

The Medecin Sans Frontier Land Cruiser B-52. Courtesy IWM

Amanda Mason, Senior Curator of Contemporary Conflict at Imperial War Museum, on getting an off-road aid vehicle into their latest exhibition, Aid Worker: Ethics Under Fire

Luckily as a museum dealing with war and conflict, we do have some experience of moving and installing large, unwieldy objects and vehicles.

But IWM North was designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, with his trademark jagged walls and tightly angled spaces. So the nature of the building itself always adds another layer of complexity any time we try to bring something large into the museum.

As soon as we started planning this exhibition back in 2018, we knew that we would like to include a vehicle. When we think of aid work, the white off-road vehicle, usually being driven on rough terrain, is often one of the first images that comes to mind.

The first challenge was finding a suitable vehicle in the UK that we could borrow, which from initial research didn’t look likely. But as work on the project intensified, we met with a team from Médecins San Frontières (MSF) and were very excited when they told us that they did have a vehicle in the UK, managed by their Head of Fundraising, James Kliffen.

The vehicle is B-52, a white Toyota Land Cruiser, which had been used by MSF in Sierra Leone for 22 years.

© Laura Kant / MSF An MSF car stuck in the muddy road after the heavy rains in Palorinya refugee settlement. Refugees from South Sudan are facing floods which have forced some to move to drier areas and rebuild their houses from scratch. Many of the trucks bringing clean water to the settlement have got stuck in the mud, delaying water distributions and leaving people short of water for drinking, cooking and washing.

photo of a man in a bullet proof jacket standing in front of a white vehicle

© Ibrahim Sherkhan / ICRC Saleem Ghadhban is an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) field officer in weapon contamination in Iraq. Saleem had been working in mine detection for more than 10 years before joining ICRC’s team in 2016.

During most of its time in service, B-52 had been repurposed as an ambulance and had been used to transport patients during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Wear and tear on the vehicle, exacerbated by frequent washing with chlorine for Ebola disinfection, eventually led to it being decommissioned and brought back to the UK.

Since then, MSF has been featuring B-52 as the centrepiece of a series of mini exhibitions and installations about their work, staged at music festivals or other large scale events. James took a group of us to take a look at B-52 backstage last summer at the Hyde Park music festival.

Though no longer fit for operational service overseas, B-52 is still a useable vehicle. So in early March 2020, James and Mark Ward, whose production company looks after the vehicle for MSF, drove B-52 up to Manchester.

Out in the car park, B-52 was reversed onto a flat-bed recovery vehicle, which then reversed into the loading bay. Once the back was raised level with the gallery floor, B-52 could just be driven off into the museum. Mark then very carefully manoeuvred the vehicle through the gallery before finally executing a three-point-turn to get it in exactly the right position, as marked out with tape on the gallery floor and walls.

Once in position, the aerial was put in place, the battery removed and the remaining fuel drained out. To keep it secure, chocks were put under the wheels, the handbrake put on and all the doors locked. It was lightly covered with polythene to keep it free of dust for the rest of the exhibition build process.

photo of two white aid vehicles in an aid camp

© ICRC / Dibeh Fakhr. The ICRC and Libyan Red Crescent volunteers at a makeshift camp in the desert for people displaced from Ben Jawad, Libya, 2011.

Before the exhibition was finished, the UK went into lockdown. But once work on the exhibition restarted in late August, B-52 was uncovered and given a light dust and is now ready for the exhibition opening.

As we hoped, the vehicle will be the first thing in the exhibition that visitors will see and will help instantly communicate what the exhibition is about.

But the vehicle also helps us to approach some more complex messages about aid work. The image of the big aid organisation and their international staff arriving at a trouble spot in their off-road vehicles is a familiar trope in the news media. But this does not entirely reflect the true nature of much aid work today, which is increasingly carried out by national staff in their own communities.

Undoubtedly, off-road vehicles remain vitally important assets for aid workers. The right vehicle can help with the physical or geographical barriers standing between aid workers and those they are trying to reach.

But what this exhibition also seeks to show, is that in places affected by conflict, there can also be complex political or ethical challenges for aid workers to overcome, in order to reach the people who most need their support.

See how the IWM got it’s Aid Vehicle into the exhibition

More objects from the exhibition:

Warning: Remnants of War

photo of a red triangle bomb warning sign with skull and cross bones together with Arabic writing


‘Explosive Remnants of War’ warning sign from Iraq, 2019. In Iraq, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) employs local specialist staff to clear mines, bombs and other devices so that rebuilding work can begin and displaced people can return home.

Humanitarian flag

orange flag with white NRC logo and Norwegian Refugee Council in white writing


Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) vehicle flag used in Afghanistan, 2019. The NRC is an independent humanitarian organisation helping people forced to flee war zones.

The midwife’s shoes

photo of a knackered old pair of trainers


Trainers worn by midwife Larissa Thorne when working in Khanke camp, Iraq, 2019. The Global Motherhood Initiative (GMI) worked with displaced Yezidi women in Khanke Camp, northern Iraq providing midwifery and mental health support.

The aid worker’s ID card

photo of an id card with a woman's photo on it


Medicins Sans Frontiere identity card issued to Dr Natalie Roberts in 2015, when she was the Emergency Coordinator for MSF’s response in Yemen.

The aid worker’s rucksack

photo of a battered old rucksack


Karrimor rucksack used by Gareth Owen. Gareth has been an aid worker for almost 30 years, taking this rucksack on many of his most challenging assignments.

The aid worker’s vodka

photo of a bottle of vodka


Bottle of Absolut Citron Vodka bought by Jane Drichta, Director of the Global Motherhood Initiative (GMI), in Iraq, 2019.

Aid Workers: Ethics under Fire is at Imperial War Museum North from October 2 2020 until May 31 2021


IWM North

Manchester, Greater Manchester

The multi-award winning IWM North is a great day out for all ages. Designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind to represent a globe shattered by conflict, it reveals how war shapes lives through personal stories and powerful exhibitions; the Big Picture (a 360 degree light and sound show), tours, object…

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