The Imperial War Museum

January 27, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Posted in General, London, museum, Out and About, photos, Tourism, Travel, UK | Leave a comment
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Saturday afternoon I took the Northern line down to Elephant & Castle and the Imperial War Museum.

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My what big guns you have!

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The museum grounds also feature a Tibetan peace garden and a walk through England’s native trees.

Most of the museum is free with the exception of the occasional special exhibit.

Once you enter you’ll be in the main atrium, which is filled with a variety of modern armaments from nuclear missiles to turn of the century aircraft and artillery.

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The keyword here is modern. The IWM only covers British involvement in conflicts from The Great War to today. According to their Information Desk more historic wars can be found at the National Army Museum. I just hope this doesn’t mean I’d have to find the National Maritime Museum for their perspective on the same events.

After browsing the big items on the ground floor head downstairs to the history of World War I and II. Both cover the causes, battles, home front, resolution and repercussion to these wars. Generally, this is done through large font summary texts as well as smaller descriptions for the items in the display cases. While obviously not an in depth analysis they will provide a general sense of the time. However, as I’m passingly familiar with the events I’d have preferred some more information… in the larger text as that’s all I was reading.

Both War exhibits feature and ‘experience’ portion. The first is in the trenches – it’s like you’re a part of a giant diorama. The second is the London Blitz, where after spending a few minutes in the shelter you walk out into a blasted street with audio characters talking about the impacts. Both are OK but if there’s a line up you could easily skip it or try again later.

The lower ground also features post-WWII conflicts in fairly sparse displays, for example the Falklands has only one screen, Vietnam has three and the Irish “troubles” are about a third of a screen. Although in fairness the Cold War display while brief was relatively comprehensive.

After finishing here head up to the First Floor. Here you’ll find a few more large armaments as well as a display on survival at sea for the merchant navy, the Victoria & George Cross display (it seemed closed) and an exhibit covering the Secret War of intelligence agencies and covert units. While the exhibit is well set up it was too brief. I realize that there may be some classified materials but presumably they could have made more of the efforts undertaken during World War II and the Cold War. By efforts I really mean gadgets.

Next, on the second floor are two sections dealing with art from the two world wars. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to walk through here. Also on this floor was a temporary exhibit looking at propaganda posters. At this point I was starting rush a little so I only glanced at the posters without reading the explanatory text. However, there is quite a range from the allied and axis powers and well worth a visit.

Level 3 brings us to the Holocaust and is for ages 14+. The exhibit is well done with a history of Jews in Europe before Hitler, the laws used to separate the Jews and other minorities from the larger society and the eventual extermination. Videos of survivor testimonies and other artifacts of the period makes it a moving and reflective experience – particularly so close to Holocaust Memorial Day.

The final part of IWM is on level 4 and titled “Crimes Against Humanity” and is recommended for those 16+. This is not so much an exhibit rather a learning centre. You can sit and watch a 20 minute video outlining the whys of crimes against humanity as well as possible means of stopping or reducing them or you can sit and use the interactive screens to learn about various crimes past and present. The video is top level, which is handy for those with short attention spans, while the database content appears to be quite comprehensive.

While all of the big guns might infer that the IWM glorifies war this is not the case. Rather it covers the causes, effects and aftermath with the last two levels highlighting the worst consequences. At best it might be arguing for a more proactive humanitarian intervention approach.

The museum takes a while to get around. For the history buff you’ll want to devote a serious chunk of time. I was only perusing and it still took me about 3 hours. While there you can hire an audio guide but I stopped using it mainly because it was using up a lot of time and only adding a little bit of colour with the summaries and anecdotes. Fortunately, there is enough text next to each exhibit to get the jist so you don’t need to rely on pacing around in circles while the audio guide plods on. 

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The Imperial War Museum is well worth a visit. It’s interesting and is well laid out but the time commitment and relative distance from the city centre and its hub of museums and attractions will make it more difficult if you’re only on a short trip.

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