The museum building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind and opened in July 2002, receiving 470,000 visitors in its first year of opening. It was recognised with awards or prize nominations for its architecture and is a prime example of Deconstructivist architecture. The museum features a permanent exhibition of chronological and thematic displays, supported by hourly audiovisual presentations which are projected throughout the gallery space. The museum also hosts a programme of temporary exhibitions in a separate gallery. Since opening, the museum has operated a successful volunteer programme, which since January 2007 has been run in partnership with Manchester Museum. As part of a national museum, Imperial War Museum North is financed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and by self-generated income. Admission is free.
During the 1990s, the Imperial War Museum sought to open a branch in the north of England. Seventy-one sites were offered for consideration by 36 local councils. One such council was that of Hartlepool, in County Durham, for whom a new museum building was designed by architect Sir Norman Foster for a site on Hartlepool's dockside. In 1992 the Teesside Development Corporation offered the museum, on behalf of Hartlepool council, a total of £14.4 million towards construction and running costs. However, the National Audit Office later reported that the Corporation's offer breached government rules and negotiations were abandoned.
In January 1999 the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith launched a project to construct the new museum in Trafford, Greater Manchester. The Trafford Park area has strong associations with the Second World War on the British home front; factories in the area produced Avro Lancaster heavy bombers, and Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engines used by a number of Royal Air Force combat aircraft. By 1945 the area employed 75,000 people. The area was consequently heavily bombed, particularly during the Manchester Blitz, when 684 people were killed in raids over two nights in December 1940. By the time of Chris Smith's announcement, the museum had already received outline planning permission (in October 1997), with full approval in April 1999.
An architectural competition for the new museum was held in 1997, with the winning design being that of Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind. Born in Łódź, Poland, in 1946, Libeskind's family had suffered during the Second World War and dozens of his relatives had died in the Holocaust. At the museum's opening, Libeskind said that he sought to "create a building ... which emotionally moved the soul of the visitor toward a sometimes unexpected realization"'. Libeskind envisaged a 'constellation composed of three interlocking shards' with each shard being a remnant of an imagined globe shattered by conflict. These shards in turn represented air, earth and water, and each formed a functionally distinct part of the museum. The 55 m high air shard, provides the museum's entranceway and a viewing balcony (now closed to the public) above the Manchester Ship Canal with views of the Manchester skyline. The construction of the tower leaves viewers exposed to the elements and one reviewer considered that it reflected "the aerial perspective of modern warfare and the precariousness of the life below". The earth shard houses the museum's exhibition spaces, while the water shard accommodates a cafe with views of the canal.
Originally budgeted at £40 million, the museum was eventually completed for £28.5 million after anticipated National Lottery funding was not forthcoming. The museum was funded by local, national and European development agencies. The European Union's European Regional Development Fund contributed £8.9 million, English Partnerships and the North West Development Agency £2.7 million, and £2.8 million was provided by Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council. Peel Holdings, a local transport and property company, contributed £12.5 million; this was reportedly the largest single sum ever given to a UK cultural project by a private enterprise. The reduction in budget forced a number of changes; the substitution of metal for concrete in the construction of the shards, the removal of a planned auditorium, and a change of exhibition content. The site's external landscaping also had to be reduced; in 2009, following an architectural design competition managed by RIBA Competitions, Berlin-based company Topotek 1 were appointed to complete this landscaping. Despite these economies, the fundamental "shattered globe" concept remained intact. A final £3 million was raised by a fundraising campaign led by BBC News war correspondent Kate Adie. Construction of the museum, by structural engineers Arup and main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine, began on 5 January 2000 and the building was topped out in late September that year. Exhibition fitting started in November 2001, and the museum opened to the public on 5 July 2002, shortly before the 2002 Commonwealth Games which were hosted in Manchester that year.