Canton, OH: The MAPS Museum

I’ve mentioned before how my brother is not necessarily the biggest fan of museums (which isn’t to say that he won’t visit them, just that he doesn’t get excited about them like I do), but he does like military museums (if you couldn’t tell from my Belgium posts), and there is one right in Canton, Ohio that I hadn’t yet been to (though he had, on multiple occasions). So, we decided to visit it together, and go see They Shall Not Grow Old right afterwards (since I liked it so much when I watched it on the BBC I was more than happy to watch it again on a big screen) for a full-day of war-related fun (if war is ever “fun”).


The MAPS Museum is primarily an aviation museum (MAPS is an acronym for Military Aviation Preservation Society), but they do have some galleries on Ohio troops from all branches of the military.  Admission to MAPS is $10, and includes the option of a free guided tour, though as we had to leave at a specific time to catch the film, we opted to guide ourselves. (Also, they have one of the cutest mailboxes ever, as you can see above.)
We were still greeted by one of the volunteers right after entering the museum, and he told us more about some of the objects we showed the most interest in. It was nice to see such friendly and passionate volunteers (without being scary, like the woman on the USS Cod). My attention was grabbed right away by the Sopwith Triplane 1916, since the Sopwith factory was in Kingston upon Thames, which is where I work (Kingston that is, not the Sopwith factory, which has been defunct since the 1990s). According to the volunteer, it was built (or restored? I don’t remember which) by a man in Ohio with advice from former Sopwith people in Kingston. We don’t even have a Sopwith in our museum, just some models and an old time clock from the factory (I mean, that’s partially because we don’t have room for a plane, but it would still be cool), so it was good to see one here.
I’m no aviation buff, but the hangar was full of an interesting array of aircraft, including a couple planes you could climb into, and the gondola from a Goodyear Blimp (Goodyear have a massive blimp hangar not far from the MAPS Museum. They usually have a Christmas event where you can drive through it. It’s neat!). There are even more aircraft housed outside, which you can view in the summer, but the gates were locked when we visited. Apparently many of the planes are on loan from the Air Force, so the MAPS Museum can restore them and send them back, which is really pretty cool. Also cool (temperature-wise) was the hangar, a little too cool, frankly, as they tend to be, so my brother suggested heading into the gallery at the back to warm up a little.
This turned out to be about aviators in a number of wars, but primarily WWII. There were a lot of great newspaper clippings and artefacts in here – in fact, almost too many, as there was too much text to read it all on one visit. But I would rather have too much information than not enough, and there was interesting stuff, like the story of the unfortunately named Lt. Reamer “Buzz” Sewell (I can see why he went by his nickname, but it was evidently a family name, as his father was a Reamer too), who was captured by the Germans and served out the remainder of the war in a POW camp; and that of the “Romanian Princess” who helped to save 1200 airmen during the war (there was a sweet little article about how they threw her a party after she moved to the US in 1955, and she was thrilled to see all her “boys” again).
Oh yeah, and there were some fantastic mannequins. Just really superlatively doofy, as you can probably see. And Dilbert the parachute dummy.
There was also a gallery upstairs, and this was a more general history of wars that Ohio troops had some involvement in, going all the way back to skirmishes between Native Americans and some of the earliest settlers (obviously not a shining moment in Ohio’s history), up until roughly the present day (I can’t remember where exactly it finished but there was definitely stuff about the Vietnam War, and possibly the Gulf War as well). There were also displays about the Civil War, which were of more interest to me (the Civil War is great for social history, because it had such a huge effect in shaping the country America became (for better or worse) and totally changed American death practices, in addition to being fascinating from a medical history point of view), including a small display about Harvey the dog, who I encountered 5 years ago at the Massillon Museum (not the real dog, obviously (though I suppose he could have been taxidermied), but a display about him).
I liked the section on WWI also, though I could have done with more stories about individual soldiers from Ohio, like the one about Eugene J. Bullard, the first black fighter pilot (he fought in the French Foreign Legion because he was living in Europe when the war started, having found that it offered many more opportunities than still segregated America), and less general history, though I suppose most Americans aren’t particularly well versed in WWI (since we were only in it for about a year) so perhaps it’s for the best that it’s there. I did enjoy the display about failed WWI inventions, like the poor fellow who had to wear the giant headset shown below (captioned simply and amusingly “didn’t work”).
I also have to mention the story of a teacher named Eva Sparrowgrove, because it made me tear up a little. She wrote to all 310 of her former students that enlisted during the war, and made a window banner to commemorate their service, including gold stars for the 9 who died in combat.  There was a fire at her house in 1950, but another one of her former students who became a fire fighter was able to save the banner, albeit with a little water damage. Lest you worry, Eva also survived the fire and continued to teach until 1973. She died in 1985 at the age of 82.
The museum was more on the scale of the Wings Museum than that of some larger aviation museums I’ve visited, but had far better (and more coherent) content than Wings (though sadly, nowhere to put my ass where Damian Lewis’s ass had been). Because we did have to leave to see the film (and get frosty chocolate milkshakes after!), I didn’t read everything completely thoroughly (honestly, it was just too damn much to read), but I guess that will give me a reason to return (my brother informs me that their displays also change regularly). I think they could be a little more discerning about the amount of material they’re including (as in, there doesn’t need to be quite so much of it!) but I get the sense that they are largely volunteer-run, and the volunteers were all super friendly and helpful, so I’ll cut them some slack. 3.5/5.

London: The RAF Museum

There’s a reason I haven’t been to the RAF Museum before now, and it is this: London is a bloody big place, especially when you’re using public transport, and Colindale is absolutely nowhere near where I live.  In fact, it took so long to get there, I was tempted to write “London(ish)” in the post title, but that isn’t strictly fair, because Colindale is as much a part of Greater London as Wimbledon is (even if it did have me wondering if it would actually be faster to get to the RAF Museum’s Cosford location than their “London” one). As usual, my main motivation for finally taking the plunge was food-related. Namely, bagels.  Bagels are one of my favourite foods, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a decent one in London (I absolutely hate cream cheese, so I tend to either eat bagels plain, or with peanut butter or marmalade, but most bagels here are treated solely as vehicles for fatty toppings, and aren’t actually tasty enough to eat by themselves).  I’ve tried all the Brick Lane “beigel” places, and found them seriously lacking (and when a chunk of whatever one of the employees was gnawing on flew out of her mouth and into my bag one time, that was it for me. I’m gagging a little just thinking about it), and some place in Camden run by an American that was supposed to offer “authentic New York bagels” was even worse – they were soft and flabby. I’d been hearing good things about Carmelli’s for years, but Golders Green is a hell of a long way to travel just for bagels.  But if I combined that trip with a visit to the RAF Museum, which is only a couple stops farther up the Northern Line, I could just about justify it.


But more on the bagels later, let’s talk museum!  The RAF Museum was a short hike from Colindale station (fine on the way there, a bit too long on the way back when I was tired from walking around hangars all afternoon), and pretty much looked like a big construction site, because that’s what it is right now.  Two of the halls (Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls) are currently closed for renovation (so I’ll probably have to do a redux at some point), but that’s OK because there were still five halls left to see, even though we had to walk past quite a lot of construction to get to them.  The museum is free, though they charge a fee to sit inside a couple of the cooler planes, or to go on the Red Arrows 4D “experience.” A sign outside had recommended that we start with the WWI Hall, but since we weren’t too sure where it was at that point, we just headed straight into the main building, which meant we inadvertently saved the best for last (we asked the guy at the admissions desk who halfheartedly tried to sell us a guidebook where to start, and he vaguely waved his hand in the direction of the hangar entrance, and didn’t mention anything about the WWI Hall, so we initially thought maybe that was closed for construction too. I got the impression that the staff weren’t tremendously enthusiastic about the museum).


I’ve been to a fair few aviation museums before, most memorably on this blog, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, where I got to go on FDR’s presidential plane, and Wings in Balcombe, where my ass touched the same place as Damian Lewis’s (it’s kind of a long story, if you haven’t read it yet).  The RAF Museum, at least the main building, was more old-fashioned and in need of updating than even Wings.  The aircraft didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order as far as I could tell.  There was a neat shark-style WWII plane (the Curtiss Kittyhawk III) right when we walked in, next to the old gondola from “His Majesty’s Airship R33” (circa 1919…I don’t think the king ever flew in it, it was just named after him in the way that ships are, since it was considered a ship of the air. It did carry a band at one point though, to promote the sale of Victory Bonds, but people on the ground wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them, so pretty pointless really).  It just seemed like aircraft from the first half (or so) of the 20th century were scattered all over the hangar, with no real rhyme or reason to them.


Even worse was the signage.  I know I’m usually an advocate for old-fashioned signs, but these were particularly terrible examples.  The labels on the actual planes weren’t so bad, but there was additional signage about various RAF engagements on the walls, and this was just appalling –  boring, overly wordy, and neglected (there were whole sections of the text completely missing where it had given up the ghost and just peeled off the walls.  At one point, there was a section on nuclear power, and I was quite surprised to see it, because the signs genuinely looked like they pre-dated the nuclear age).  I can certainly see why they’re re-doing some of the other hangars, and I hope this one is next, because it sure needs it!


Actually, they do appear to be in the process of renovation, because there were sections closed off where they were removing the carpet in an attempt to make the hangars look more like hangars, apparently (though the carpet is the least of their problems). The singularly uninviting looking cafe in the middle of one of the halls certainly wasn’t helping with that authentic “hangar” atmosphere either.  After the hall of miscellaneous aircraft (in which there were admittedly some cool things, like a flying boat that had actually been turned into a houseboat at some point, before being restored), there was a room of helicopters, which was still remarkably unengaging, but at least there was a theme.


The hall of mainly WWII aircraft was better, in fact, it was the best part of the main building. There was a large display about American pilots who came over to Britain during the war, both American units which were stationed here, and Americans who joined the RAF prior to America entering the war, which I found quite interesting, despite it suffering from many of the same problems as the text in the first hall.  My favourite plane here was undoubtedly the massive Lancaster Bomber…you’ll see why at the end of the post (hint: it has something to do with my absolutely juvenile sense of humour).


This section was also more engaging because there was actually a plane you could crawl into (you can go inside the Spitfire too, but only if you pay a tenner first.  I think I’ll stick to the free planes, thanks), and a couple other aircraft you could peer inside (including a Chinook you could walk through the back of).  I also thought the small display about ejector seats was reasonably diverting.


After passing through the lame gift shop (the only postcards they had were those “Events from the Day you were Born” ones that looked like they’d been sitting around for a good twenty years.  They were all yellowed, with curled edges), we left the building in search of the WWI Hall that appeared to be somewhere around the corner (judging by the map outside that said it was still open, since the staff certainly weren’t volunteering any information), but on the way, we encountered the “Milestones” building, so stopped inside.  This apparently contained “milestone” aircraft from the last century or so of aviation, though there was nothing by the Wright Brothers (a 1909 Bleriot was the earliest I saw), save for a yellow line on the wall to indicate the length of their test flight at Kitty Hawk.


Having not learned our lesson from the disappointing first building, we climbed up to the enticingly-named “Control Tower,” only to be met with an empty room (that admittedly had good views of the hangar, but I was hoping for something more…interactive), but on the way up, we encountered a wall of “Flying Aces,” so I’m presenting to you the best moustache of the lot, so you can save yourself the bother of climbing all the way up there too.  For all that this were meant to be about “milestones” of aviation, and the hall clearly having been updated more recently than the main building, this was still not particularly impressive, and the displays concluded with a weird section sponsored by Oman about the relationship between it and the RAF, which read more like a tourist advertisement for Oman than anything else (didn’t convince me to go there though).


The final hangar currently open to the public is the WWI Hall, located, appropriately enough, inside the UK’s first aircraft factory building.  It has been very recently redone, thanks to a HLF grant, and it shows, because this was amazing compared to the rest of the museum. It actually still had the look of an historic building on the inside (my favourite part was the authentic “Thomas Crapper” pull chain toilets in the bathroom.  I love those.  It feels like you’re really accomplishing something when you pull the chain), but managed to incorporate modern, interactive, and entertaining elements.


The hall contained a number of really old planes, with display cases in the middle that explained more about the RFC and RNAS (the precursors to the RAF) uniforms, as well as other elements of early military aviation. The surprised fellow above is actually demonstrating a flight mask, as well as some early “electrically heated” clothing that apparently the pilots could only bear to turn on for a few minutes at a time, because the clothing got so hot, they risked burning themselves (it looks like that poor “surprised” pilot might have just burned himself in a delicate area)!


This hangar also had the interactive elements that were so sorely lacking in the other hangars.  In addition to a few activities including a game that involved matching up aerial photos of terrain with the actual terrain to see if anything had changed (surprisingly difficult), there was also a mock-up of a biplane, complete with gun and and communicating tube, so you could satisfy your inner Henry Jones Sr, only without blowing up your own tail fin (because there wasn’t one); and an old-school flight simulator that I quite happily flung myself around in for a while (it honestly felt like I was going to pitch myself out the side, because there was no seat belt or anything, but that was half the fun).


There was also that much needed personal touch in this hall.  Whereas the other hangars had just included long dull lists of the accomplishments of various well-decorated RAF pilots, this one actually had amusing anecdotes, like one from a pilot and his friend who flew over a beach and pelted German sunbathers with oranges, which was pretty hilarious (he said they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the plane).  I love that kind of stuff.


If the WWI Hall is an example of where the RAF Museum is headed, then I definitely want to come back when they reopen the Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls, and see what other delights they have in store (to be honest though, I was kind of relieved that not all the hangars were open when we visited, because we were there for ages, and I was exhausted by the time we left.  I didn’t want to see two additional ones!). I do hope they can afford to redo the main body of the museum too, because it is sorely in need of it!  Even with what’s there now, it is the kind of museum that takes hours to see, and might be better to make two trips if you’re very keen on historic aviation and don’t want to wear yourself out.  Because it is free, I can’t complain too much, but the difference in quality between old and new is too striking to ignore.  So, 4.5/5 for the new WWI Hall, but only 3/5 for the museum as a whole.  Oh, and about those bagels…Carmelli’s is where it’s at.  There were only a few flavours available (mainly just different types of seeds, which was OK, since I do really like seeded bagels, though I like blueberry ones even better), but they were fresh out of the oven, and pretty damn delicious.  I might have to make the trek out to Golders Green again sooner than expected, because now that I know I can get good bagels, I’m gonna want them all the time!

As promised, here’s that Lancaster Bomber. I think the big “Poos” speaks for itself, really.



London: “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care” @ the Science Museum

dsc00120I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition.  So here we are.

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“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018.  It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there).  (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud!  I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there.  I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)

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Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit.  Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect.  And it was really interesting stuff, too!

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The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol).  It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working.  Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.

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The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped).  This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way.  Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.

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The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint.  Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.

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Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher.  However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything.  Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!”  I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it.  These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did.  I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.

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Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved.  There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool.  These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again.  There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).

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The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)

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The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it.  There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit.  Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.”  I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining.  Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love!  4/5.

Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa

DSC03305Te Papa, or the National Museum of New Zealand (the Maori name roughly translates to “the place of many treasures”) was similar in many ways to the Auckland Museum.  It was large, spread out over multiple stories, and featured a pretty kick-ass temporary exhibition.  Unlike the Auckland Museum, it had the added benefit of being free, temporary exhibit and all, which I’ve come to realise is extremely rare in New Zealand, especially for a museum of this calibre.  Because of its sheer size, this was the only museum I had time to see in Wellington (though I did take the time to see Harry McNeish’s grave, because of Mrs. Chippy (Mrs. Chippy’s story is pretty sad, and Harry McNeish also got a bit of a bum deal as a result)), but because it was so comprehensive, I don’t really feel as though I missed out.

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The highlight of the museum was undoubtedly its temporary exhibit, Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, which was put together in collaboration with the Weta Workshop (the special effects company founded in part by Peter Jackson), who created these amazing giant soldier figures. Gallipoli is famously commemorated in New Zealand and Australia on ANZAC Day every year, but I think in Britain, we sometimes don’t realise just how huge of an impact the war had on this small country.  I discussed some of the casualty figures in the Auckland Museum post, but 2779 Kiwis were killed in Gallipoli alone, a full sixth of all the Kiwi soldiers fighting in the campaign, and I think Gallipoli is really where the war hit home for the people of New Zealand; even though a greater number of men would be killed on the Western Front, Gallipoli was the first major loss, which is why it is so well remembered to this day.

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We were warned on the website that there would probably be a queue for the exhibit, so we headed there first after arriving, and were indeed met with a queue, but decided to just go for it, because it might be worse later on.  As it turned out, the line moved fairly quickly, which was both good and bad; good because we didn’t have much of a wait, bad because the people in front of us didn’t really have time to clear out before we entered, so the exhibit was very crowded (when we were leaving the museum, there was no queue at all, so I think going in the afternoon is probably the better option.  We should really have gone back in then to appreciate it without the crowds, but we were so tired at that point we couldn’t be bothered).

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Obviously, the focal point of the exhibition was the giant figures, which were extremely lifelike (although maybe a bit too muscular. The soldiers I’ve been researching had an average height of about 5’4″-5’7″, and weighed somewhere between 110-140 lbs (how they met the minimum chest size requirement is beyond me), but I imagine their ANZAC counterparts could have been a bit beefier, having access to better food at home and such. Still, knowing all the problems they had with dysentery in the army, they must still have been depleted physically as the campaign stretched on, even if they joined up in good condition)), and rather moving , but the rest of the exhibit was pretty good too. It provided a comprehensive history of Gallipoli, including aspects of the battle, soldier life, and the home front.

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My main (bully) beef with the exhibit, as you can probably guess, was the crowds.  There were lots of great interactive things, and plenty of touchscreens where you could learn more about individual soldiers killed in the battle, but because there were so many people, I only got to use a couple of them.  I did, nonetheless, think it was very well put-together.  Although the big figures were the draw, they also had some charming miniatures, including a model of a hospital ship (complete with a teeny version of the soldiers’ bulldog mascot, adorable!).  They gave everyone a red poppy made of paper at the end, which you could either keep or write a message of remembrance on and throw in the lake surrounding the final soldier.  I think this exhibit is on til 2018, so I highly recommend stopping by if you find yourself in New Zealand before then.

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Now, onto the rest of the museum!  Like the Auckland Museum, they had a dedicated geology/volcano gallery, which I think may have also had an earthquake house, though we didn’t bother with going in this one after the rather underwhelming experience in Auckland.  However, the Natural History section was much better, because they have the only preserved colossal squid in any museum in the world!  I do think squids are hella gross, and this one was no exception, but since it was, you know, dead, and soaking in formaldehyde, it couldn’t try to suck my brain out or whatever it is squids do, so I was happy to look at it (though I couldn’t quite the keep the expression of disgust off my face).

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Because the children’s gallery was deserted, I was able to wander in and play a game to learn about my carbon footprint, and of course, crawl inside a model of a blue whale’s heart (I actually only crawled halfway in, because I was worried I might get stuck).  They also had an outside garden, which was understandably empty as it was right on the seafront and it was an extremely windy and rainy day, but that was fine with me, because I could jump up and down on the swing bridge without getting funny looks.  That swing bridge probably was the most fun I had all day, but they also had a little replica of a glow worm cave that was neat (though nowhere near as neat as the real thing).

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Heading back inside, we ventured up to the third floor, which not only contained a cannon from the Endeavour (awesome!), but a gallery about New Zealand before Europeans arrived, which of course included moa and other native animals, and a room where you could touch a rock from each corner of New Zealand (it had something to do with a Maori custom, but also touching stuff is fun).  There were also some fun interactives in here, including a game where you got to analyse moa poop (accompanied by hilarious farting sounds!  I’m not sure if birds can actually fart though).

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The fourth floor was all about the people of New Zealand, starting with Maori settlements, and moving up to the present day.  You were asked not to take pictures in the Maori section, so the lack of photos is not a deliberate omission on my part, but I have to say that I liked this gallery much better than the Auckland Museum’s Maori collections.  For one thing, the captions were much more detailed; even if they didn’t know what the exact provenance of an object was, they still described its meaning to the Maori people and what it was used for in great detail, which I appreciated, because it’s much easier to gain insight into a culture if some of their beliefs and customs are explained to you.  There were also a couple of beautiful marae, one of which is actually still used by the community.  The Maori history carried on with a gallery about the Treaty of Waitangi, where New Zealand (for better or worse) was handed over to the British.

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There were a couple small galleries on Pacific Islanders, who have immigrated to New Zealand in large numbers in recent years, for education and jobs.  I think my favourite object was the cow sculpture made of corned beef tins (all tinned food is referred to as pisupo in the Pacific Islands, because pea soup was the first canned thing to be imported), to highlight the problems associated with imported foods and the encroachment of the West on traditional cultures.  There were many more cool artefacts though, including some clothing made by contemporary designers, and a game where you could try navigating to New Zealand by the sun and stars.

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I loved the gallery about 19th century immigration; they had pull-out drawers (which required a fair amount of muscle to pull out!) containing the stories of immigrants from many different countries, a game where you could be the captain of an immigrant ship (I killed off a whole family from scarlet fever, but my ship made it into port in time, so yay?), and other ship-related fun. The gallery about early 20th century to modern day New Zealand was also delightful, with (you guessed it) more games, and junk about the Queen (for real, why are Kiwis so keen on the Royal Family?).

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The top two floors of the museum are known as Arts Te Papa, and are dedicated to the museum’s art collection (as you might expect).  The entire first room had drawing stations set up with mirrors, where you were encouraged to take selfies, draw a self portrait (me and my boyfriend actually drew pictures of each other, to change it up a bit; the one I drew still cracks me up), or write poetry using a magnetic wall full of random words.  I really enjoyed some of the paintings up here because they portrayed various sites we’d already seen around New Zealand as they looked a hundred or more years ago, and it was interesting to compare.  The photographic collection was also nice; I got to learn more about Opo the Friendly Dolphin, whose grave and statue we rather depressingly (and randomly) encountered on the beach in Opononi the week before. (I just learned there’s a song written about her!  I know what I’m listening to after I finish writing this post!)  The top floor was jewelley and ceramics, but we were both just too damn tired (and unconcerned about jewellery and ceramics) by that point to venture up, so I hope I didn’t miss anything amazing.

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To sum up, Te Papa has an excellent temporary exhibit, lots of cool permanent exhibits (and the only preserved colossal squid, if that matters to you), and is free, so there is absolutely no reason not to go.  If you’ve got a spare day in Wellington, fill it up with this (I must confess that I actually had two days in Wellington, but I spent the first one going to various sites from Braindead, because it’s one of my favourite films.  We even stayed right down the street from Lionel’s house (I could see it from our window!). I don’t regret this decision, because Te Papa + Braindead made for an excellent two days here).  4.5/5.




Hooge and Poperinge, Belgium: Hooge Crater Museum and Poperinge Death Cell

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After finishing with the excellent Passchendaele Museum, we still had some time to kill before the cat-festivities kicked off, so we headed down the road to Hooge, for the Hooge Crater Museum, which bills itself as the “best private museum in Flanders Fields.”  The advertising must work, because a massive tour bus pulled in at the same time we did, much to my dismay.  Fortunately, they headed straight for the bar at the front of the museum, so the museum itself remained empty.

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I must confess that due to the advertising and the rather hefty 5 euro admission fee (for such a small museum), my expectations were high.  Sadly, they were in no way met by the museum’s contents.  The museum first directs you into a room to watch a filmstrip, which only held my attention for a couple of minutes, and then into the main gallery of the museum itself, which has a lot of cases, but most of them are taken up by life-size dioramas.  I do love life-size dioramas with hilarious mannequins, there’s no denying that, but the museum wasn’t big enough to support multiple dioramas AND a decent amount of actual artefacts, so it only took about ten minutes to make my way around the room.

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I mean, yes, the mannequins were excellent (meaning, they made me laugh my ass off), and the replica of the Red Baron’s plane was pretty awesome as well, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the general lack of content.  I don’t feel like there was much in there about the Battle of Hooge Crater, or the actual crater in question (which is apparently nearby, in front of the Hooge Crater Cemetery), unless you were willing to squint at some yellowing sheets of paper with tiny font.  I’m still not even sure how you pronounce Hooge.  I’m going with a phonetic “hooooge” like who and huge combined, but it might have some weird Flemish pronunciation, who knows.

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There was another gallery in a back room with a rather interesting story about a soldier who found a crucifix lying on the battlefield, and took it home with him with the intention of someday returning it to the appropriate place, but he died shortly after the war, so his family ended up hanging onto it for the best part of a century until they discovered this museum and donated it to them.  In fact, that was probably the most interesting part of the whole museum.  I’m not sure what constitutes a “private museum” in Belgium exactly; as in, I don’t know how the Passchendaele Museum, In Flanders Fields Museum, and others are classified, but rather than being the “best,” I have to say that Hooge Crater is probably the worst WWI museum I’ve been to, especially for the price.  If it was only a euro or two, I wouldn’t have been so bothered, but 5 euro is a lot for a very small museum without much to offer.  2/5.

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On a much more sombre note, I also visited Poperinge, as I really wanted to see the Poperinge Death Cell and Execution Spot.  Poperinge is right in the middle of Belgium’s hops growing region, so it is also home to a Hop Museum where you can apparently sniff a bewildering variety of hops, which I would have loved to do if I wasn’t so pressed for time (in spite of my dislike of hoppy beers, just because I like smelling stuff), but I was determined to get to Kattenstoet on time, so it fell by the wayside in favour of something far more historically important.

On a side street right next to Poperinge’s Town Hall, you’ll find a red door simply marked “death cell.”  Upon entering, you’re faced with a prison cell where soldiers were held during the war…some of them simply overnight for drunkenness or staying out past curfew – but for some poor men, it was where they spent their last night alive, before being executed for desertion in the morning.  Because many of these men were suffering from shell shock, their executions were nothing short of tragic, and the cell serves as a grim reminder of these young men who had their lives cut short.  It’s not really the most pleasant atmosphere to be in, but I’m glad it’s something I saw and experienced, just to reflect on the many horrors of war.  Some of the men carved their names on the wall of the cell, and these inscriptions have been preserved, with some of the more legible ones highlighted.

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If you want to feel even more mournful, never fear, as there is a re-creation of the execution site where the men were killed by firing squad out the back of the cells.  I don’t know what else I can really say about it, other than that it is powerful and chilling and terribly sad.


To end on something more upbeat, so the extreme joy of Kattenstoet in the next post (and it WILL be the next post, I promise!) doesn’t seem too jarring, Poperinge is also where Talbot House was located.  This famous institution was started by two British Army chaplains as a place for soldiers to come when they could get away from the front lines, just to relax and engage in wholesome entertainments (basically stuff other than prostitutes or heavy drinking).  It was unique because it wasn’t only an officer’s club, but welcomed soldiers of all ranks.  It is now a museum/hotel, but I didn’t have a chance to go in, simply admiring it/posing for a picture on the outside, but you can definitely add it to your list if you need a jolt of relative positivity after the Death Cell.  I know I’d like to return someday to see the interior for myself!

Zonnebeke, Belgium: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

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I don’t think a visit to Belgium can really be complete without seeing something related to WWI (or more than one thing; I’ll be devoting a couple of posts to it this time around).  It played such a huge role in the history of this little country, as so much of Flanders was virtually decimated in the fight over a relatively tiny area of land, and many of the Belgian people were forced to flee to avoid the war and destruction.  On my last trip to Belgium, I made it to a few WWI sites, visiting the Ijzer Tower, In Flanders Fields Museum, and Tyne Cot cemetery.  However, I did not get to see the Passchendaele Museum, which is very near Tyne Cot, as it had already closed for the day by the time I got there. Clearly, it was time to remedy this.

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With the cat festival in Ieper planned for that afternoon (yeah, you read that correctly…just you wait!), it left the morning free for exploring nearby Great War sites, starting with Passchendaele (admission 7.5 euros).  As you can probably guess from the museum’s full name, it commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele, fought in 1917.  Like so much of the war, Passchendaele was tragically almost pointless in terms of the human life lost relative to what was actually accomplished (at least half a million casualties over a fight for 5 miles of territory).  If you need a visual aid for this, then visit Tyne Cot to see it all starkly laid out in front of you, in the form of row upon row upon row of identical tombstones for the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient (and really, please do visit Tyne Cot, as there’s nothing else quite so effective at driving home the futility of war).  However, perhaps because the museum recognises that many of its visitors will also have just been to Tyne Cot, and doesn’t wish to immediately depress them further, the museum isn’t all doom and gloom.  In fact, a lot of it is rather fun.

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The museum obviously took children into consideration when planning out the galleries, as there are lots of activities.  Fortunately for me, there were no children in sight, so I was free to ignore the fact that the mirrors had been intentionally been placed at a child’s eye-level, and indulge my love of dressing up (and I do recommend visiting early in the morning as we did, because the tour bus circuit seems to come through later in the day).  I learned that I look surprisingly good in a helmet, which is probably not what the museum was going for, but still.  The museum is split up into five different sections, beginning with a general history of the war, which is the most like a traditional museum, and then, similar to the Ijzer Tower, goes off piste a bit by including the re-creation of a dugout, which leads into an underground area about the history of the battle itself, then into a re-creation of some trenches, and finally, to a memorial section.

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In the first part, the museum tells the story of the war through uniforms, soldiers’ kit and their personal possessions, and a few interactive things, like smelling stations where you could get a whiff of various poison gasses and bully beef (which turned out to smell worse than the poison gas).  My only complaint would be that the item captions are written directly on the glass cases in white ink, so they can be a bit tricky to read in places, and I think I missed a few of them entirely as they were hard to even see against some of the objects.

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Next came the British dugouts, which we entered via a wooden staircase (I sent my boyfriend down first, just in case).  I don’t know if they wanted their attempt to re-create these dugouts to include the actual fear and nervous anticipation that real soldiers would have felt, but it worked on me!  Usually these things have some kind of explosion noise that’s triggered when you walk into them, and because I’m terrified of sudden loud noises (I hate balloons for this very reason), I was extremely tense the entire time, just waiting for the explosion to happen (I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what actually happens, so you can experience real fear too!), and though exploring the maze of tunnels was fun, I was quite relieved to finally emerge blinking into the next area.

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This “bunker” section was a curious mix of the heavy-duty machinery of war, with huge guns and collections of shells and things; and of more intimate portraits of some of the soldiers involved.  There was a section for each of the countries who’d sent men to fight at Passchendaele, with insignia of the units involved, the total number of casualties each sustained, and video interviews with some of the veterans of the battle (presumably taped in the 1970s or ’80s, since there are no veterans left today, and the men looked old in them, but not in their 100s type old, more like they were in their seventies and eighties), which were alternately amusing and sad.

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I wouldn’t generally consider myself a big weaponry person, but some of the facts about the WWI weapons were fascinating…unfortunately, I’m hard-pressed to repeat any of them here, as I initially wrote this a week and a half after my visit, and after going to a number of other museums, so my retention is not as good as it normally is.  Thanks to the pictorial evidence, I can tell you that I tried on yet another helmet before heading out to the trenches (seriously, I’m sure it’s cost-prohibitive, but it would be awesome if they gave you a helmet to borrow when walking through the trenches.  It would really add to the experience).

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The trenches are, appropriately enough, actually outside (when we first showed up, the lady at the admissions desk said something about going outside, but we didn’t quite catch it and were worried there was some kind of additional walk we were meant to go on that we wouldn’t have had time for, so we were relieved when we realised she had probably meant the trench section). Definitely don’t wear shoes with any kind of a heel, as there are big gaps between the boards on the bottom of the trench, and you will probably fall through.  I liked how different sections of the trench were constructed out of different materials, to illustrate the difference between British and German trenches.  In fact,  I think the whole museum set-up was very nicely done, with the sections smoothly segueing into each other, and covering so many war-time environments.

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At the end of the trenches, there was an American relief house, provided to some of the Belgians who had lost their homes in the war; it definitely appears to be American in design, as Belgian houses have a very distinct look, and this house isn’t it, but it did provide some information on the American role in the war (ignore me on the porch with a stupid expression on my face).  Finally, we reached the Hall of Reflection, which was quite extensive and solemn, but also contained an array of interesting facts (concealed under panels featuring various cartoon characters), about the wartime experiences of people like AA Milne and Walt Disney.  There was quite a moving sculpture at the end, made of arms floating on a watery surface (which sounds weird without an explanation, but was meant to represent the many men who died from drowning in the trenches, especially after they were wounded and couldn’t escape, due to dreadful weather during Passchendaele that led to flooding).

I have to say that the Passchendaele Museum was right up there with the best war museums I’ve seen.  It fully conveyed the horrors of war, but also offered opportunities to get a taste of (dramatically toned-down) wartime experiences yourself, making for an enjoyable and educational experience.  If you have to pick one museum in the Ieper area to visit, I think this would be an excellent choice.  4.5/5.




Ostend, Belgium: Atlantikwall Museum

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Given what a windy day it was, with hints of rain on the horizon, after seeing James Ensorhuis and the kite festival, the only logical thing to do would be to visit an outdoor attraction, right?  Well, anyway, that’s what I did.  If you venture a few miles down the road from Ostend, you’ll find one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans during WWII (the wall originally stretched all along the coast from France to Norway, which is pretty impressive, until you bear in mind that it did them a fat lot of good in the end, am I right?), which has now been turned into a whole museum complex that also includes a living history fishing village (knowing my penchant for fishing heritage centres, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn’t also visit that).

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Atlantikwall costs 8 euros, with an included audio guide, or 10 euros if you want to visit the fishing village as well (a saving of 4 euros), but be forewarned that it involves a lot of walking.  Even just getting from the carpark to the museum entrance is a fair hike, and then the museum itself is spread out over a couple kilometres with lots of stairs (though nothing like the 366 in Belfort), and although there are a few bunkers and stuff you can go inside, the vast majority is outside, so pick a nice day for your visit.  I didn’t exactly follow my own advice, but fortunately the rain held off, so aside from it being windy and a bit chilly, it wasn’t too bad in the end.

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After my boyfriend and I picked up our audio guides, we were initially a bit confused, as a map near the entrance seemed to indicate we had a choice of two different routes: a green and a red, but the arrow signs were all yellow, so perhaps they’ve been consolidated into one route, since we definitely saw everything.  The interesting thing about this section of the Atlantikwall is that it also includes some ruins from WWI (the “ONLY preserved German coastal battery from WWI,” according to their website), so I guess you get more bang for your buck/euro.  You all know by now of my long-running feud with audio guides, but these ones were alright.  They only rambled on for a minute or so at each stopping point, usually the time it took to walk to the next one, so you weren’t left dawdling around for ages waiting for it to finish.

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This being Belgium, there were of course a fair amount of rather hilarious mannequins (though nothing on the level of my all-time favourite one from Ijzertoren; I still genuinely can’t believe how terrible he looks); I think the soldier on the right has something of Dr. Crippen about him, only with less creepy eyes.

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You are of course, right on the sea, as you’re reminded every time you step out onto a raised section of the wall and have a look towards the coast, and it really would be quite lovely without all the barbed wire and concrete bunkers.  The stark contrast really helps ram the war home and makes you feel as though you might well have been transported back in time, only with non-threatening mannequins instead of Nazis.

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I feel as though I should maybe be talking more about all the weaponry laying around, and military history generally, but munitions lie well outside my area of expertise, and the audio guides pretty much tell you all you need to know, being supplemented by actual signs here and there.  There was even a sample of the different horrible obstructions the Germans attempted to put in the way of the Allies, including Rommelspargel, pointy post things named for both Rommel and their resemblance to asparagus.  Rommel himself was actually transferred here for a bit to make improvements, so he was the one responsible for all the additional fortifications, at least until Hitler forced him to commit suicide.

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Atlantikwall was mercifully nearly deserted the majority of the time we were walking through, although we managed to catch up with some annoying Euro-hipsters near the end (not sure how that worked, because the audio guide should mean that everyone is moving around at roughly the same pace.  Maybe because they kept stopping to flap their jaws instead of just moving along to the next number), which was irritating because it was the one section that did have a lot indoors, and some videos to watch, which I skipped just to get away from all the people.  Instead, I lingered in the storeroom, with its display of tinned sausages and other hilarious yet disgusting German foodstuffs, and copies of the menu that the soldiers were served.

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In general, I liked Atlantikwall, and I learned a fair bit (how much I’ve retained is another matter entirely, as evidenced by the scarcity of war information in this post, though one thing I did find interesting is that some Eastern Europeans who were opposed to communism volunteered with the Nazis, in the hopes of taking down Stalin, but the Germans didn’t fully trust them, so they were generally given shitty jobs of no major importance to do).  I think it’s fantastic that these pieces of history have been preserved (Belgium in general seems to make a real effort to honour the past, probably because it’s been used as a battleground in so many major wars), and I think the set-up is generally quite good; while we weren’t sure about the yellow arrows at first, as sometimes it felt like we were bypassing stuff, it’s actually arranged in quite a clever way, and the path winds you back around in such a manner that you get to see everything without much backtracking.  I also liked how we were left free to wander and explore (save for the alarm we were warned about if you stray beyond the ropes, leaving me anxious about accidentally triggering it).  So yeah, I suppose it was a pretty worthwhile experience, and something a bit different from all the WWI stuff that dominates most of Belgium (though there’ll be some of that coming soon, don’t worry!).  Maybe I’ll have to return to see that fishing village someday, though if they’re speaking Flemish, perhaps not…  3.5/5.

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London: WWI Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

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I’m actually kind of embarrassed to admit that this was my first visit to the Imperial War Museum, especially because I used to live within walking distance of it (in the old E&C, boy am I glad not to be living there anymore!). In fairness to me, it had been closed for a long time whilst they were revamping it, but I think it’s been open again since the summer, so no more excuses!  Actually, I do have one more excuse…by the time I made it there last week, after a long day spent running errands, it was already well after 4 (as you may be able to tell from the nighttime photograph, although I suppose it could have been about 3 and that dark these days) and there was absolutely no earthly way I’d have time to see everything (I think the museum has about 5 floors; just look at it, it’s huge!) so I decided to zero on one of the areas I knew they’d put a special focus on redoing, the First World War Galleries.

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The WWI stuff is in the basement, which was quite convenient as I just happened to wander down there in search of the toilets.  From the outside, it didn’t look like much, and I thought I’d be able to zip through and maybe move onto the Second World War.  I was wrong, because everything is hidden in galleries that snake through the interior of the museum, and it is huge and awesome in there.

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Now, I have been to a lot of WWI museums in the past couple of years (the Ijzer Tower, and the In Flanders Fields museums spring instantly to mind, but there’s been plenty more that touch on it, most recently the Wellington Arch), and though I do still think the Ijzer Tower rocked because of its sheer size, the Imperial War Museum blew the rest of them out of the water.  It was just very comprehensive, and took you through each stage of the war (and the home front, in Britain and Europe) in chronological order, which I really appreciated.

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I believe that the IWM is run by a different organisation than the one that manages the Royal Armouries in Leeds, but that’s kind of what it reminded me of, only more in depth.  There were tonnes of strategy games and other interactive things that really made it fun; I got to play a game where I removed broken Huntley and Palmer biscuits from the production line (which brought on flashbacks to one of my earliest posts on the biscuit tin gallery at the Reading Museum).  Regular readers will know that I’m no great fan of children, and I think part of what made my experience so nice was that there were none of them in there (maybe because it was past school hours, and not a weekend) so the adults actually got a chance to play all the games, which was great.  They also had a dress-up bit, and a display where you could check to see if you were fit to be a soldier by measuring your height and girth and such (I was too short to have made the grade initially, but would have passed muster after they lowered their standards…and if I was a man of course).

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Speaking of flashbacks and such, I knew there would be something about Edith Cavell in there, she pops up everywhere else, even when you’re not expecting her!  I wasn’t disappointed as they had one of her nursing caps.  This was in addition to a splendid collection of uniforms, including one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s with a shortened sleeve for his withered arm.

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Actually, there were lots of very cool artefacts.  You may be able to tell from the pictures I took that I’m kind of partial to the recruitment posters, but they also had figurines representing Churchill, David Lloyd George, Philippe Petain, and Woodrow Wilson (I couldn’t get a good photo of Wilson because of the awkward lighting though), and plenty of things that the troops actually took into battle, including the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy shown above that one soldier apparently used to “entertain” his fellow soldiers.  Getting shot at, sprayed with poison gas, and being forced to listen to a ventriloquist…damn, war really is hell.

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I thought I was pretty well versed in the war generally after having been to all these museums, reading a book about it here and there, and watching Paxman’s series on it last spring, but there was so much information here that I managed to learn some things.  For instance, did you know that the French 75 cocktail was named after a type of cannon (shown above)?  I love French 75s, as they’re a mix of champagne, gin, lemon juice, and sugar, which is pretty much what I’m looking for in an alcoholic beverage, but I wasn’t aware of the Great War connection until the helpful placard pointed it out to me.

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I know that America, due to their isolationist policies, entered the war very late, but I liked that the galleries also gave some space to the Doughboys, and some of Wilson’s post-war plans, because sometimes I do feel a bit left out of things at other European war museums.   I also liked that there was some information on German civilians and how difficult life was with food shortages (the dishes below are ones they were encouraged to use to conserve food, and they’re about the size of a child’s tea set.  Britain also had rationing dishes, but they were at least three times the size of the German ones), not to mention the weird substitutions that were encouraged (I think the text on that poster with the gnome on it translated to something like, “Need oil?  Use mushrooms!”  How does that even work?  They’re so watery and horrible!).

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Skipping ahead to the end of the war, there was of course the obligatory poignant section about the horrific injuries of some of the survivors, as well as a recognition of the many dead soldiers and civilians, but being the Imperial War Museum, and not a war memorial, it wasn’t dwelt upon as much as at some other places.  The quote on a wall from Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier from WWI (who is now deceased) was simple, and yet stuck with me, “I’ve tried for 80 years to forget it.  But I can’t.”  I think that does sum up the impact the war had on Britain, even to this day, and why exhibits like these are still so important.

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I really do think there was something for everyone here, with attention given to the roles of women, children, and pacifists in the war, as well as plenty of weaponry and artillery for people who are into that stuff (they even had a mock trench, though it wasn’t anywhere near as elaborate as the ones at Ijzer Tower).  It wasn’t quite as specialist as some exhibits I’ve seen, so hardcore military historians might not find much for them (though I think the quality of the artefacts is excellent, and quite varied) but for the average person who just loves history generally, they’re perfect. I think you can tell that I loved the WWI Galleries, and I spent a fantastic hour exploring them.  I will definitely now make a point to return to the IWM (though I may or may not blog about it, I don’t want to bore everyone, but there might be some other really cool exhibits), and I advise others to do the same.  I can’t compare the galleries to what they had before, since I never saw the earlier ones, but they are really spectacular now.  4.5/5




Diksmuide, Belgium: IJzer Tower (Ijzertoren)


As this was the third time I’ve been to Belgium, but I hadn’t yet been to any war-related sites, it was clear this was something I needed to rectify on this trip.  Thus, we planned to spend a day in Ieper (Ypres), but on the way there made a pit-stop in Diksmuide, for a museum I’d read about online.  The Ijzer Tower is located in the outskirts of Diksmuide, along the Yser River.  However, as it is a 22-story building, you can’t miss it.


The land around the tower looks rather war-torn, which is not entirely due to the trench. The original tower, built shortly after WWI by a group of Flemish veterans, was blown up in 1946, allegedly by rival French-speaking soldiers.  The current tower was built shortly after, and the remains of the original tower were used to build the Pax (Peace) Gate and the central monument, pictured above.  The central cross is surrounded by the graves of Flemish soldiers killed in WWI, giving the site a sombre air.


Because the museum is currently undergoing construction, the entrance is a bit tricky to find.  There’s a small parking lot in front of the Pax Gate, from which we walked down the street, past a fenced-off industrial area until we found the shop entrance (where we were greeted by a ginger cat waiting for someone to activate the automatic doors so he could slip back inside).  There, we paid the admission fee (7 euros) and exited through the back of the building, where we finally found access to the museum complex via a reconstructed trench next to a field.


The trench did come complete with authentic smells, though it’s difficult to say whether they were intentional or not.  Diksmuide is famed for its dairy industry, and the trench had a distinct manure odour which could have simply been the by-product of all the cows in the area.  No matter, only a raging case of trenchfoot could have enhanced the authenticity.  From the trench, we proceeded through the small circular cemetery which offered a recording in English explaining the significance of the site and of the soldiers buried there.

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Also outside the tower was a small hut of a type which was given to people whose homes had been destroyed due to the war.  Apparently some people were still living in these huts up until the 1990s.  The inside was done up to resemble a typical post-war interior, complete with wax figures, and I have to say, even though it only had four modest-sized rooms, it was probably bigger than my flat, so I can see why people carried on living in them for so long!  On the other side of the tower, there was a chicken coop with several intimidating roosters, so we hastily made our way into the tower.


Once inside, we took a lift up to the top floor, and from there, climbed up several flights of stairs to reach the outdoor viewing platform at the top, where we were rewarded with a commanding view of Diksmuide and the surrounding countryside. There were exhibits on almost all of the museum’s floors, so from that point on, we worked our way down via the sometimes narrow staircases (though there did appear to be lift access to most floors).


The museum was not solely about WWI; rather, it was a museum of Flemish history and independence, with the story of the war told from a Flemish perspective.  I honestly never knew that there was so much serious conflict between Flanders and the Walloon region, and I found the exhibits absorbing.  Almost everything had an English translation, so despite the Flemish bent of the material, we had no trouble understanding anything.

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Of course, had the museum only consisted of signage, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as I did.  Fortunately, every floor had a set of footprints on the ground, beckoning you to have a peek around the corner.  You’d be well-advised to do so, because that’s where the IJzer Tower hid its real gems.  The upper floors had re-created trenches (this time without the smells) with sound effects, so I spent most of the time pretending to duck and cover.  Even more frightening was the atomic bomb room in the WWII section, which featured strobe lights and and a huge explosion that only activated after you went too far inside to avoid it.

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I’m sure you all know by now that if there’s one thing I love as much as authentic smells, it is hilarious wax figures.  The gent shown above wins the award, hands down, for the best mannequin I have ever seen, anywhere.  Not only is he disturbingly cheerful for someone in a war zone, but his face looks as though it was painted by someone who had never seen a human, except for perhaps Michael Jackson.  I truly hope they don’t get rid of him in the renovation, as looking at his picture still makes my day.

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As we worked our way down through the museum levels, into more recent times, the displays did get slightly less enticing.  Try as I might, I found it hard to summon up much enthusiasm for modern Belgian politics.  In fact, there was a group of older people slightly ahead of us in the museum who abruptly disappeared, so I think even they must have gotten bored.  However, I urge you to persevere, as some of the best parts of the museum were on the lower levels.

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One of the main things that persuaded me to visit the IJzer Tower was reading online that they had an area where you could smell various poison gasses.  Indeed they did!  From a sort of urinal-shaped trough, the aromas of mustard and chlorine gasses wafted up.  Chlorine just smelled like bathroom cleaner (which is probably what they used to replicate it) but mustard gas was foul.  Not that you’d actually have time to analyse the nuances of the scent if you were caught in a gas attack, but still.  That little fellow on the right is either a flea or lice (it wasn’t clear which), and was surprisingly cute, in an ugly sort of way.  They also had some giant rats.

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One of my favourite sections was on the 2nd or 3rd floor, and was a recreation of an extensive British trench system that had been rediscovered in the 1990s.  It actually spanned several floors, right down to a poorly lit set of stairs with a rope handrail.  I nervously tiptoed through this area, as I was scared that there would be a sudden mock explosion at some point (like the atomic bomb earlier on), but thankfully that never happened, so feel free to enjoy the various dioramas in peace.  Well, in wartime, actually, as that’s the whole point, but you know what I mean.

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The 1st floor appeared to be under construction, as most of it was filled up with building materials.  There was a small shop on the ground floor, along with what I think were the only toilets in the building (so go when you first arrive, or you’ll be holding it for a while!).  Leaving the tower, we took another look around the graves, and exited through the turnstile at the bottom of Pax Gate.


Although I’ve been a bit glib throughout, as is my nature, much of the museum was quite poignant, particularly the cemetery and the ruins of the first tower.  The ultimate message of the IJzer Tower is the price of war, and the need for peace.  It was also moving to read about the struggles of the Flemish people against a French-dominated government, and fascinating to have a different perspective on WWI, when all we usually hear about is the experience of the British or Americans, and not the people who were actually living inside a war zone.  I highly recommend the IJzer Tower if you’re visiting Belgium – the country isn’t all that large, so it’s within a two hour drive of almost any city, and only about a half hour outside of Brugge.  4/5.