London: The Imperial War Museum

I blogged about the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum almost three years ago, and genuinely had every intention of returning soon after to blog about the rest of the museum…but somehow I’ve only just got around to making that return visit, I guess because Lambeth isn’t really somewhere I frequent (I’ve only been in the vicinity a handful of times since moving away from Elephant and Castle eight years ago).  Although some of the surrounding streets aren’t overly salubrious, the IWM itself is housed in a superb building, as you can probably see. Actually, the building is particularly interesting, because it used to be Bethlem Royal Hospital aka Bedlam, the most infamous psychiatric hospital of them all.  In medieval times, Bedlam was located close to what would become Liverpool Street, but by the early 19th century, space in the City was at a premium, so the hospital moved out to this purpose-built building in Lambeth, and there it remained until 1930, when it moved again to its current home in Beckenham. They knocked down the wings (which is where the wards were), and opened the central administrative hall as the Imperial War Museum in 1936. I don’t know about you, but I would be terrified enough if I was being committed even without being brought to a building this imposing, so I think it works much better as a museum, though its past does admittedly give it a creepy touch that I enjoy.

  

Like all of London’s major museums, the IWM is free and huge. It actually is still really imposing on the inside, even though it’s obviously been redesigned a few times since the ’30s (most recently just a few years ago).  I think the concept of a “war museum” itself is really interesting, because it’s genuinely not a military museum; you’ll find very little about battles and such in here. It’s more about how war impacts society (mainly World Wars 1 and 2, though there is a bit in here on more recent conflicts).

  

Because I already blogged about the First World War gallery, and the museum is so extensive, I decided to skip that section entirely this time around, and start with WWII (I’ll refer you to my earlier post if you’d like to read about their WWI collection). I’d enjoyed their WWI stuff so much that my hopes were high for WWII. Unfortunately, the galleries just didn’t measure up to expectations.

  

The main Second World War gallery was called “Turning Points: 1934-1945” and its intention is to “explore key moments of the Second World War through the connections between people’s lives and the objects on display,” which sounds like it could be a really interesting idea, but somehow it just didn’t work out that way. For starters, the objects were meant to be grouped together in themes like “War on the Way” and “Shifting Sands,” which translated to a few big things, like planes or cars, all displayed together, and then further on, a few more motorcycles or cars or whatever. The themes didn’t really come across very well at all. Another issue was that someone had made the (stupid) decision to make all the object labels in this gallery stickers stuck to the OUTSIDE of the cases.  Well, as you can probably guess, visitors had picked at the edges, because they could (I don’t necessarily think it was malicious or even intentional, because I’m totally the sort of person that will pick at the peeling edges of something without even thinking about it, and other people are probably the same), and some of them were so worn down that whole words were missing from the captions. They only redid this section three or four years ago, and you’d think they would have aimed for labels with more longevity than that. It’s fine if they wanted to use stickers because they were planning on moving objects around a lot, so it would be easy to change the labels, but why not at least stick them on the inside of the case where people couldn’t get at them? It made everything look kind of grubby and cheap.  It was also weird that almost nothing in here was interactive, given how much of the WWI gallery is. I think it would have really benefited from offering something hands-on, because it’s rather boring as is.

 

There were a few interesting objects in here, like a map Rommel had personally plotted military campaigns on, and Montgomery’s car, but I didn’t really get a sense of how the war affected British society except in a little exhibition off in a side gallery, called “A Family in Wartime.” This followed the Allpress family, who originally lived in Southwark (I think) but moved to Wimbledon because of the Blitz. They were fairly lucky in that both of their sons who were old enough to fight made it back home safely, but unlucky in that two of their daughters had congenital heart conditions and died as teenagers (I think they had nine children in total). I enjoyed learning about their family and how the war affected their lives, and particularly liked the doll house version of their Southwark house, made by one of their sons-in-law. They didn’t really seem to have any possessions actually belonging to the family, but they did have objects that were representative of a middle class family at that time, including a litterbug made to look like Hitler (because being wasteful helped the Nazis) that I personally think was way too cute. I get the idea of improving morale by making Hitler look ridiculous, but c’mon, that bug is kind of adorable, and Hitler was pure evil.

  

I was pretty excited for the “Secret War” gallery about espionage, because I am way fonder of old James Bond movies than I should be, given how sexist and racist most of them are (I think it’s because I grew up watching them with my family, and they’re one of the few things we’ll still all sit around and watch together), but this too was disappointing. There was way too much text in here, and actually, too many objects too. I just got sick of looking at them all, and thus probably missed some cool stuff in some of the cases. I did notice there was a letter from Noor Inayat Khan here, however, who you might remember if you read my post on Beaulieu. She was an incredibly brave British spy during WWII who was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis, and her letter was to another female spy back at HQ.

  

“Peace and Security: 1945-2014” had a similar layout to the WWII gallery, only it was dealing with more recent conflicts. I thought some of the objects here were really cool, in particular a suit of armour made by an artist to symbolise the conflict in Northern Ireland, a mosaic of Saddam Hussein that was torn down after his fall from power, a mannequin representing what a victim of a nuclear explosion would look like, and a big chunk of the Twin Towers, but I think the signage overall was again a little lacking.

  

The floor above all this (I think we were only up to the 4th floor at this point) held a few temporary photographic exhibitions that I actually really enjoyed. Two of them were on the conflict in Syria, and some of the photos of everyday life were excellent. There was also an exhibition on Guantanamo Bay, which I thought had the potential to be really interesting, were it not for the relatively poor labels that were both confusing and difficult to locate.

  

I was intrigued by the “Curiosities of War” exhibit, because any time I hear the word “curiosities” I think cabinet of curiosities and my interest is piqued, but this exhibition seemed to be something of an afterthought. To begin with, the layout was really bizarre; because the museum is arranged around an atrium, there is a lot of wasted space, and it was really apparent by the time we got up to this level. There were two super skinny passageways leading off from the gallery space on one end, and they weren’t connected on the other end. So to see “Curiosities of War,” you had to walk all the way down one hallway, come all the way back, walk down the other, and come all the way back again. And because they were so narrow, you literally couldn’t pass someone without making body contact, so if someone was coming the other way, you had to duck into an alcove to let them through. Also, it looked as though the person who made the signs did not arrange the artefacts, because at one point there was a sign about a wooden training horse from WWI, which I had noticed on the complete opposite side (catty corner) of the exhibition, shoved in next to a plane wheel, even though it was presumably supposed to be next to the sign about it where there was indeed plenty of space for it. I’m not sure how they even pulled that one off, but it was pretty lame.

  

The top floor was just home to a gallery about various Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, which was fine (there was a clip from an old movie about spies and some objects made by POWs that I thought were neat), although I think they tried to cram too many people in there, and it was overwhelming to read about them all. I get wanting to honour as many people as possible (even though it wasn’t a complete listing of VCs or George Cross holders as it was; I think only 250 people were featured), but I think the layout could have been better.

And now for the Holocaust gallery. We saved it for last, which was probably a mistake, because it was intense. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be, but I was unprepared for quite this level of intensity (or immersion. Most Holocaust exhibits I’ve seen were relatively small, but this one was on two levels, and we were in there for over an hour).  You couldn’t take photos, for obvious reasons, but it’s the kind of thing that stuck with me nonetheless. This was by far the most comprehensive Holocaust gallery I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to quite a few over the years. It covered the whole appalling story, from the history of antisemitism in Europe, Hitler’s rise to power (which was unpleasantly reminiscent of recent events in America), and the beginnings of euthanasia of so-called “mental defectives” to the “Final Solution.” Throughout the way, the horror was really driven home by the inclusion of stories of people killed in the Holocaust, including their final letters to family members, which were terribly poignant to read. As if that wasn’t heart-rending enough, there were also toys belonging to children who were killed or who managed to survive through hiding; one boy spent 5 years concealed in a cupboard so small it gave him bone deformities, with only a few toys to play with in the dark (his piano teacher brought him food). There was a scale model of Auschwitz that described in chilling detail exactly what happened to people when they arrived, and a dissection table that came from one of the “hospitals” where they euthanised people. But the two things that disturbed me the most were actually bits of information taken from the signs in here: first, that the Final Solution probably came about as a result of various Nazi officials trying to outdo each other to impress Hitler, and secondly, that the crews of people forced to cremate bodies in Auschwitz were themselves changed over and killed off every four months, so that (in theory) no one would live to tell the world what the Nazis had done. I was taught about the Holocaust in school, of course, and although I remember it affecting me really intensely and giving me nightmares at the time, I think it’s also important to learn about it as an adult, because you do forgot details over time, and I think it affects you in a different way as an adult, when you understand that atrocities aren’t consigned to the past – genocide still happens. I genuinely think everyone should have to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in some way, because I can’t understand how anyone would think it’s OK to go around waving Nazi flags after seeing something like this.

  

So clearly, the IWM is a very mixed bag indeed. The Holocaust and WWI galleries are excellent, the photography exhibits were quite good, and everything else could really use some improvement – more interactivity for a start. It’s great that it’s free, but the level of neglect in some of the areas of the museum was really unfortunate, especially with something as inexpensive and easy to fix as a sticker, and the resulting inconsistencies in the quality of the galleries are too glaring to ignore. My other complaint is that the only toilets in the whole, six story museum are on Floor 0, other than disabled toilets/baby changing stations on most of the other floors. I’m glad that they at least offer those, but I didn’t feel comfortable using them when someone might have needed them more, which meant I had to hold in my pee for a very long time indeed (because I was too lazy to go all the way down and then all the way back up again). I don’t know why a museum this big couldn’t have at least two sets of toilets for everyone, especially when one of the floors was taken up by a big platform under the atrium with nothing in it (seriously, put at least a couple toilet stalls in there). There were odd things going on with the layout of this whole museum, but this was the worst thing for someone with a bladder as small as mine. Anyway, I’d definitely recommend visiting for at least for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, and the others are certainly worth seeing, but if your time is limited, then those two are the ones I’d make a priority, because you could easily spend an entire day or two here if you wanted to see everything in the museum. 4.5/5 for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, but 3/5 for the museum as a whole.

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13 comments

  1. What a shame parts of the gallery didn’t live up to expectation – we have visited the Imperial War Museum in Manchester many times but parts of it sound very much like its bigger relation so I know exactly what you mean. The Holocaust area sounds fascinating though, something I would like to visit sometime.

    1. That’s interesting – never been to the one in Manchester, but I wonder if they both underwent a revamp around the same time. It’s funny that they have the same sort of strengths and weaknesses; perhaps they share curators!

  2. I’ve never been here and confess I assumed it was more military. Still not sure if I could get past the word Imperial, though the holocaust section sounds excellent.

    1. The Imperial bit is a bit off-putting, I agree. I think it’s a holdover from WWI, when the museum was founded, as it was originally meant to commemorate the sacrifices of Britain and the Empire in the First World War, rather than commemorating wars fought against bits of the Empire, which is what the name certainly could imply! It is definitely more about war and society than the military though, and they do have interesting sounding special exhibitions from time to time, though I confess I haven’t been to any of them yet. There was one on the history of protests when we were there (didn’t go because it was a tenner, and we’d already spent ages in the museum), and they had a “Fashion on the Ration” one that I missed a while back.

  3. I totally agree about the too-cute Hitler bug! I got all excited about its cuteness as I was clicking on it – then felt dismay and dirty shame when I spied the swastikas. Why would they give mixed messages like this to children? Terrible.
    It’s too bad about the espionage overkill – with a better balance it would’ve been my favourite section too. As it is, I’d want a closer look at those rubber feet. They look like some comical prop for making “He went that-a-way” tracks.
    This is a painfully inadequate thing to say but, your description of the Holocaust gallery gave me deep chills. In junior high we were taken to the Toronto Holocaust Centre – a museum unlike any I’ve been to, before or since – and a survivor told us his story. I’ll bet not one of us has ever forgotten that day. Even so, you’re so right to say it’s a subject that should be revisited as an adult – especially with all the same poisons bubbling to the surface today.

    1. Oh good, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought he was cute! It feels like kind of a jerkish thing to say because he is based on Hitler, but I think the fault lies with the maker of the bug for making him cute in the first place. Why not have a cute reuse and recycle bug with little jowls like Churchill or something instead?
      I didn’t even notice the rubber feet when we walked through because there was so much stuff. Marcus had to point them out to me, and then I went back and looked at them.
      I think it must have been really powerful to listen to an actual survivor inside a Holocaust Museum. I kind of wish my school had done something like that.

  4. So, I took a ridiculously long WordPress hiatus and am just now catching up on all your posts. I really admire how well you stick to a blogging schedule! I’ve had so many distractions. I even contemplated a post called “reasons why this blog doesn’t get updated enough” haha
    Anyway, I also agree with the mixed messages of the Hitler bug. It really does look alarmingly cute…though I’d still gladly step on it. Holocaust museums/exhibits are definitely difficult. I’ve been to the one in DC and Yad Vashem in Israel, but I can’t watch holocaust movies – with the exception of Inglorious Basterds bc of its delightfully historically inaccurate ending. I agree that a review for adults is necessary given the alarming way history and present day are colliding. Actually, a whole remedial history 101 is definitely in order..

    1. I do only post once a week, so it’s not really that demanding! It also helps that I don’t have much of a social life, so I have a lot of free time on my hands! I think most people are probably much busier than I am. I did notice you hadn’t posted in a while though…glad you’re back!
      If it was actually a real Hitler bug, I would smash that thing with the biggest boot available, regardless of cuteness. But as it is, I think that someone ruined what could have been a perfectly cute bug with swastikas and a mustache.
      I can’t watch Holocaust movies either. They still give me horrible nightmares. I do remember watching Swing Kids in school and liking it before the shit started to hit the fan, but that was probably mainly because of the presence of a young Robert Sean Leonard, who was cute as a button.

  5. Very interesting. I remember visiting the museum 30 some years ago (yes, I’m that old, but I was also pretty young then) and, while my memory is really fuzzy, I recall it being more focused on the conduct of war. Not sure if the museum has changed a lot or my memory is even worse than I think it is! It’s hard to think of an Imperial War Museum that not being focused on the conduct of war!

    1. Hmm, that is interesting. Yeah, I’m not sure what it was like before, but it is definitely more about war and society now. There was a bit in there about battles and stuff (probably as an excuse for them to include Montgomery’s car) but that wasn’t the focus.

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