A director of the Imperial War Museum once said that he was in charge of running an organisation with the most foreboding title in the world, containing “the three worst words in the English language” – Imperial, War, and Museum. While the IWM London is certainly a museum whose name doesn’t necessarily invoke warm and fuzzy feelings, it has always been one of my favorite museums. One does not need to be a military history buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of every tank the British Army ever used to find the contents of the IWM interesting. In fact, those whose interest centers on the intimate intricacies of military technology and the minutiae of troop movements may find themselves disappointed as the museum focuses its energy on highlighting the people and the stories behind the objects rather than on technical detail.
IWM London is located in Lambeth in South London in the building that once housed the Bethlem Royal Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, which gave rise to the term “Bedlam”. The IWM London was established in 1917, during final years of the First World War, and moved into its current location in 1936. The building strikes an impressive pose, standing by itself in the midst of the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.
Walking up the main entrance, visitors are greeted by two massive naval guns that had once been mounted on the HMS Ramilles and the HMS Resolution. They have now been transplanted and currently stand directly in front of the museum’s front door. You enter the museum on the first floor and immediately find yourself looking out over the museum’s atrium, a large open space which stretches from the ground up to the fourth floor. The museum’s galleries wrap around this central core and it is here that the museum displays many of its “showstopper” pieces. A Harrier jet and a Spitfire hang suspended over the space, while a V-2 rocket stretches up from the floor, almost touching the ceiling above. Its smaller predecessor, the V-1, or doodlebug also hangings alongside the mammoth machines. You can learn more about these objects by descending to the ground floor where they are joined by other “Witnesses to War”, such as a WWI field artillery gun, a WWII Soviet tank, and the remains of a car destroyed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad. The ground floor also contains the museum’s main gift shop, the café, and the entrance to the WWI gallery. The WWI gallery was closed in 2012 for redesign, and reopened in 2014 for the beginning of the WWI centenary. The redesign aimed to elaborate on the causes and consequences of the First World War, as well as providing visitors with a more immersive and engaging discussion of the war itself. The gallery begins with an explanation of the factors that led to the war and the reasons behind Britain’s decision to join the conflict. The gallery then moves on to discuss propaganda and recruitment; offensive weaponry in use, from the primitive, such as the improvised clubs that soldiers put together for hand to hand combat, to the terrifyingly modern mustard gas. These galleries touch upon many related subjects including: the war outside of continental Europe, conscription and conscientious objectors, women’s contribution to the war effort, the rise of new technology, the soldier’s personal experience and finally, the Allied victory and the war’s consequences.
The gallery makes extensive use of audio and visuals taken from the archives to enhance the visitor experience. For example, visitors can walk through a replica of a standard British trench, while the sounds of an artillery bombardment, an airplane flying overhead, and a tank engine grinding to life surround them. Shadows of British soldiers are even projected on the trench walls which provides an intimate experience as visitors can even listen in on snippets of the soldier’s conversations.
One of my favorite parts of this gallery makes extensive use of audio-visual interpretation. At two points in the gallery, there are circular pits separated from the flow of traffic through the exhibition. These sections provide a place to sit and rest while making your way through the gallery. However, each circular section also features a low round table displaying an artefact upon which are projected images from the museum’s archives. The first section is focused around the usage of gas during the war. Visitors can examine a man’s leather glove shrunken down by exposure to mustard gas to a size best suited for a child whilst listening to excerpts from documents discussing the development and usage of gas. The second section focuses on soldiers’ psychological experience of the war. Visitors are confronted with a British soldier’s metal helmet with the bullet it deflected from the wearer still embedded in it, all whilst listening to excerpts from soldiers’ letters and diaries. These portions of the exhibit offer a glimpse into what I often think is the most precious part of the IWM’s collection: the private, personal papers that offer on-the-ground insight into the events that the authors lived through and that most visitors don’t get a chance to interact with. While I am a big fan of the use of audio throughout the exhibition, if any visitors have aural sensitivity they may want to exercise caution while going through this gallery. Visitors can also try on a British army uniform and engage with digital interactives that allow them to contemplate elements of the wartime experience such as rationing and defensive strategies against German U-Boats. My primary critique of this gallery is that it does not fully capture the experience of women during WWI, especially those women working as nurses and doctors.
The first floor holds the museum’s Second World War gallery. From the central staircase, the exhibition begins with an examination of the rise of Nazism. The right-hand portion of the gallery then delves into the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk. This section also touches upon British civilians’ responses to the advent of war, the Battle of the Atlantic, Britain’s attempt to combat the threat from German U-Boats and the use of large-scale bombing by both the Allies and the Axis Powers. The left-hand portion of the gallery addresses the British campaign against the Nazis in North Africa, the conflict between the Nazis and the Soviets on the Eastern Front, the D-Day invasion and subsequent liberation of Europe, and the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. Highlights from this gallery include: Tamzine, the smallest “little ship” to be utilized in the Dunkirk evacuation and the front portion of a Lancaster bomber. This plane boasts roundels painted on the side representing its 39 successful missions directly across from the tail of a German fighter plane with small planes painted on it to represent the 121 Allied bombers its pilot shot down. Additional highlights from this section include an embroidered sheet that a British woman used to record her time in a Japanese internment camp and a film of the D-Day landings supplemented with personal accounts from British veterans of what it was like to come ashore during the invasion. This floor also used to contain a gallery called “Family in Wartime”, which examined the experience of a local family, the Allpress family, throughout WWII. This gallery is currently closed as part of the IWM’s ongoing redesign. The IWM London currently plans on completely redesigning its WWII galleries, with the new galleries opening in 2021. The museum’s goal is to remain open for the majority of the work and, as such, the redesign is moving in discrete stages, beginning with work in the “Family in Wartime” gallery on the first floor and the “Secret War” gallery on the second.
The second floor of the IWM hosts their post-Second World War gallery which includes objects and stories from 1946 through to 2014. The displays cover conflicts relating to the Cold War, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, and the wars in the Middle East. I will admit that this is often a floor that I skip over. I’m a World War history buff, which often means that I mentally check out after August 1945. However, visiting the second floor of the IWM during the “We Were There” sessions that the museum puts together during school holidays may have finally convinced me to give the later half of the twentieth century another shot. “We Were There” is a public engagement programme that provides an opportunity for visitors to speak with individuals who have experienced conflict from WWII to the present day. The programme began as an extension of the “Meet an Evacuee” schools programme, where primary school children got the chance to meet pensioners who had been evacuated from their homes during WWII and to ask them questions about their experience. During the “We Were There” sessions, visitors have the chance to chat, not only with these former evacuees, but also with veterans of the Korean and Falklands Wars, soldiers and civilians who lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland and soldiers who served with the UN Peacekeeping Forces. Getting the chance to speak about the topics covered in the IWM with the people who actually lived through them fundamentally changed the way that I view the museum objects themselves. I’ve walked past the Humber Pig, an armored truck that saw service in Northern Ireland countless times, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it as anything more than one of the larger objects on the second floor until I had the chance to listen to Lee, a British Army veteran, describe driving a Pig through a nighttime riot in Belfast; trying his best to see out through the Pig’s miniscule windscreen. So needless to say, one of my top recommendations for anyone who plans to visit the IWM during the school holidays is to check the museum’s website ahead of time and plan your visit for when the “We Were There” eyewitnesses will be in the gallery.
The third floor of the IWM holds the museum’s temporary exhibitions. Currently, the floor is occupied by the Making a New World exhibition which addresses the centenary and end of WWI. This exhibition will be at the museum until the end of March 2019. This exhibition is made up of four distinct galleries. Mimesis: African Soldier is a film examining the often forgotten experiences of colonial troops during WWI. Moments of Silence is an immersive artistic exhibition examining the theme of remembrance. I Was There: Room of Voices features interviews with individuals who lived through WWI. It is fascinating to hear them describe their memories of Armistice Day. Renewal is an exhibition of historic photographs that explore life after the First World War.
The entrance to the IWM’s Holocaust Exhibition is found on the fourth floor. This exhibition occupies two floors. The fourth floor covers the rise of Nazism and the growing persecution of Jews and other minority groups. Visitors then descend to the third floor as Europe descends into war and Nazi Germany’s genocide is unleashed. It's a harrowing exhibition – to such a degree that it makes sense that the museum restricts entry to those 14 and above. If their parent accompanies them, children under 14 may enter the exhibition, but fair warning to parents: this is not an exhibition that shies away from the brutal and ugly realities of the Holocaust. Like many of the museum’s other galleries, the aspects of this exhibition that I found most poignant were the use of interviews with survivors. These interviews are shown on television screens or projected into the gallery via speakers at various points throughout the exhibition. Once again, the voices of the people behind the objects take precedence, and the stories that they tell resonate and stay with you. The moment that has stayed with me since my visit to the museum came from the interviews regarding survivors’ experiences at Auschwitz. Across from a model of the camp sits a row of chairs. When you sit down in one of the chairs, a speaker broadcasts a survivor’s account directly into your ear, almost as if they were sitting next to you. One thing that stands out from these narratives is how many people, upon arriving at Auschwitz initially thought that the other inmates with their shaved heads and striped uniforms were residents from an insane asylum. One of the survivors recalls watching one of these “lunatics” jump onto a cattle car that had just delivered him and his family to clear them and their luggage out, all the whilst muttering under his breath in Yiddish, “You are 18 and you have a trade,” and realizing that perhaps this man was not insane at all. In all likelihood, this man’s whispered instruction may have helped to save this survivor’s life.
The Holocaust Exhibition is also slated for redesign, with the intent of integrating the narrative of the Holocaust more extensively into that of the Second World War. I can only hope that the redesign does not result in the removal of any of these personal accounts, which would mark a real loss to the visitor’s experience of the exhibition.
The fifth and final floor of the museum is the Lord Ashcroft’s Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes, which is dedicated to sharing the lives and stories of people who have won the Victoria Cross, the highest commendation in the British armed forces, through acts of extraordinary bravery. If you’re in the mood to be inspired by daring acts of bravery, or to confirm to yourself that the quiet life without any solo attacks on machine gun nests suits you just fine, be sure to stop in here.
By virtue of subject matter, the Imperial War Museum can appear to be solely the haunt and point of interest of military specialists; but I can assure you that this museum is so much more than its tanks and airplanes. It’s an institution that tells the story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times and that is a mission and a topic that touches all of us.
Location: Lambeth Rd, London SE1 6HZ
Opening Hours: 10am – 6:00pm
Admission: Free (Some special exhibitions are ticketed) Tours available:
Ticketed exhibitions - prices:
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Katherine Roberts is a recent graduate of University College London’s “Museums and Galleries in Education” Master’s Program. Originally from Philadelphia, she has lived in London since 2015 and is passionate about history, especially that of the Second World War, and the role that museums can play as a place to make history immediate and compelling and to challenge visitors’ notions of what history is and who contributes to it. She will begin a PhD program at University of Manchester on the history of nursing during WWII in September 2019.