This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. As armies were raised across Europe to prepare for the coming conflict, the British government moved to temporary headquarters underneath Westminster. The underground labyrinth of rooms became the control centre for Winston Churchill and his government during the entire war. Frozen in time since the 1940s, the ‘Churchill War Rooms’ (CWR), operated by the Imperial War Museums, remains as it was when the sound of typewriters and cigarette smoke filled the air. Today, the historic rooms and museum, in the heart of London, provide a glimpse into that hidden world of war-time operations, covert planning, and the influence of one of the most famous Prime Ministers in the nation’s history.
Unlike most major London museums, the entrance to the CWR is small and almost-hidden. A discrete sign behind the Treasury department building leads visitors to the modern entrance (above) contrasting with the white marble architecture surrounding it. A staircase awaits you behind the door, descending down into the bunkers. Admission costs £22 for adults, with concessions available. In a city full of free national museums, paid admission may be a deterrent to some visitors. For me, paying for admission gives the experience another layer of meaning. I find I focus more during the visit, knowing I’m not likely to return soon, and I am absorbing as much information as I can. Compare this to a casual visit to the National Gallery, where I can freely enter the galleries as I please, whenever, and casually admire the art. If one is able to pay the entrance fee, what lies inside is worth the price.
Ticket in hand, it’s a smooth transition into the historic rooms. As with any historic house, the CWR have been kept as they would have been when in use. Wandering through the initial rooms, I was instantly struck by the astonishing attention to detail in every inch. The war rooms were closed following the victory over Nazi Germany, and remain as they were in 1945. This environment really immerses you in a 1940’s context, and makes for a more engaging experience overall. You can see from the photographs below that everything is as it was, down to the red ashtrays and keys hanging on the wall.
My favourite details were the mapping equipment throughout the rooms. Boxes of thumbtacks still organized as they were when D-Day was planned, waiting to be plotted onto the massive maps displaying movement across continental Europe. Even a small legend of tack colours and string (below) is still hung next to the map, as if the invasion were tomorrow. It is one thing to read about the planning done during WWII, yet to see the rudimentary methods of planning, tracking, and organization used brings that knowledge to another level. This new understanding is the power of the CWR, and historic building museums overall.
Visually, the CWR are an astonishing place. Each room has small plaques for interpretation, explaining the details of each space. Visitors are free to move through the corridors and spend as much, or as little, time in each room as they want. Personal narratives are intertwined into some of the interpretation, detailing the generals and secretaries alike who called these bunkers home during the war.
These personal narratives and 1940s-details are the highlights of this unique museum. You get a unique sense of the chaos and energy of the war-time operations of Churchill and his staff. It is this physical connection to history which has always drawn me to historical spaces. Surrounding yourself with this sense of history, from the floorboards to the light fixtures, is a unique advantage of this type of museum.
Half-way through the visit, there is a slight detour out of the historic rooms into the Churchill Museum. It covers the Prime Minister’s entire life, from childhood, to the Boer War and the Gallipoli disaster, through his post-war retirement and his death in 1965. Official portraits, his iconic siren suits, and other artefacts from his life fill the cabinets, along with interactive digital displays and plenty of audio and visual engagement. Despite the sophisticated audio/visual displays, seeing Churchill’s bowtie and top hat was the highlight for me. The exhibition space is a lot to read and consume, on top of the information received from the Cabinet Rooms. However, the narrative told was compelling, well written, and easily managed.
As someone who studies colonial histories, the newest exhibition ‘Churchill and the Middle East’ peaked my interest. This one-room exhibition explores the imperial views of Churchill, from his tenure as Secretary of State for the Colonies following WWI through his time in 10 Downing Street. Within such an impressive collection of Churchill artefacts, however, the exhibition’s reliance on a single video projection and archival reproductions was disappointing. The content of the video, examining the complexity of British interests in the Middle East and addressing Churchill’s imperial views towards the region, was a welcome diversion from the usual celebratory narratives elsewhere. Yet the space’s reliance on the one video, with limited interpretation outside of it, made their message fall flat. For a museum so intertwined with physical objects and spaces, artefacts from this controversial period of Churchill’s life would have made the exhibition’s narrative more engaging.
Overall, the mix of historic details and thoughtful exhibitions make the Churchill War Rooms an enjoyable day out. It is a large time commitment, coupled with an admission price. Yet, for those who want to experience this unique piece of British history, it is unmatched by any competitor. To have a space like this is a golden opportunity for learning and engaging with a different era, one which hopefully none of us have to live through in the future. I anticipate the temporary displays to evolve and contribute to our understanding of Churchill over time. One thing however that won’t change, and hasn’t for 80 years, will be the Cabinet Rooms.
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Zachary Veith is a recent graduate of University College London’s MA in Museum Studies program, where he researched the lasting impact of colonialism on public memory and museum collections. His master’s dissertation “Capturing More Than an Image” examined the archival biases and colonial legacies of the T.E. Lawrence photography collections in the Imperial War Museum and Bodleian Library. Zachary currently lives in New York, where he is seeking post-graduate employment.