Friday, January 11, 2008

London's Imperial War Museum

Yesterday began in a bad way with filthy weather, domestic disasters and a general sense that we were in a rut and everyone else wasn’t. At times like this, NoCrowds’ favourite trick is to bunk off and be a tourist for a day. Even if we only have a lunch hour to spare, going to see anything that takes us outside our own problems can often help save the day.

But we were feeling way too sorry for ourselves to be consoled by mere art and architecture, no matter how inspiring. And then it came to us that the perfect way to bask in our misery was to visit the one museum in London for which we have no affection – the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth.

When our sons were small, they loved going there. As you can imagine, the little action men loved the big guns, big planes and big armoured vehicles, oblivious to the fact that the museum’s brief was to cover all aspects of modern conflict with equal time for friend, foe, combatant and civilian.

What we took away from those visits so many years ago was that this was a very dangerous museum, dangerous in the sense that it was so even handed and so well done, that at some level, war seemed an inevitable part of the human condition. We didn’t like that idea then and we don’t like it now so charging over to Lambeth like a ‘just give peace a chance’ reincarnation of John Lennon seemed a cathartic and reasonable thing to do.

Now the first thing to know about the Imperial War Museum is that it is housed in a grand building, formerly the Bethlem Royal Hospital which, for centuries, was the major lunatic asylum for London, more commonly known as “Bedlam”. Well, how appropriate is that, we thought as we read the background material on the way to the site. The fact that enormous guns from the HMS Ramillies and HMS Resolution guard the entrance and that lots of men were milling around the guns enthusiastically taking pictures only seemed to wind this old peacenik up even more.

Once inside, we bypassed the Large Exhibits Hall containing the most important weapons and vehicles in the collection (and most of the boys and men) heading straight for the “My Boy Jack” exhibition (until February 24) which chronicles the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his only son who died in the Battle of Loos in 1915. What makes the story so poignant is that Kipling’s son, who was practically blind, would never have been allowed to fight were it not for his world famous father who marshalled all his influence to gain his son a commission. The exhibit contains original documents and material used to make the television drama by the same name which starred Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Both the film and the exhibition are extremely moving and to be recommended.

From there we tackled the First and Second World War Galleries which are extensive and, we hate to say it, superbly done which include a walk through recreation of a WWI trench complete with “special sound, lighting and smell effects”. We had to battle our way through “The Children’s War”, which tells the story of WWII through the eyes of Britain’s children which was packed to the gills with modern day British school children who, surprisingly, seemed quite interested in these remote childhoods of air raids, evacuations and ration cards. At this point, we began to suspect that we were going to have to write something more than just “this is a place with big toys for big boys” review. Nevertheless, there was tons more to see before we passed judgement.

On the second floor, we spent a long time in the Art Galleries which contain a good collection of modern British paintings exploring the theme of war. In the same room as John Singer Sargent’s famous painting “Gassed” there is a new work by the artist, Steve McQueen, “Queen and Country” commemorating the British service men and women who have lost their lives in the Iraq conflict. Sadly, this exhibit is a work in progress and will continue until British forces leave Iraq.

On the same floor, there currently is a fascinating temporary exhibit (until March 30th) entitled “Weapons of Mass Communications” which uses posters to explore the relationship between advertising, publicity and government propaganda. Unlike the rest of the museum this exhibit was populated by hip media types, some with quite amazing hair, who seemed to be looking for new ideas.

On the fourth and fifth floor of the Imperial War Museum visitors will find two exhibitions on the Holocaust and Crimes against Humanity. As you can imagine, these exhibits are difficult to visit and even more difficult to adequately describe. In any case, we advise that you leave them for last. We found them informative and very, very sobering. Many of the visitors left comments in the guestbook that they had found this Holocaust Exhibition to be more powerful than either of the museums dedicated to the subject in Washington and Berlin. We also thought that the specially commissioned film on genocide and ethnic violence in Armenia, Nazi occupied Europe, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda and elsewhere should be compulsory viewing for anyone trying to gain a better understanding of conflict in the 21st century.

Following these two exhibitions, we decided it was time to call it a day. Once again, we went away convinced that this museum does too good a job of articulating what to us is so inexplicable. Despite all mankind has learned and despite all human achievement, in the words of Helmuth von Moltke “War is also part of God’s creation.”

The Imperial War Museum London
Lambeth Road
London SE1
Tel: 0207 416 5320

Open daily from 10 to 6
Free admission


  1. As for von Moltke's comment, he's wrong. There is no god and metaphorically speaking that's why we have war. Or if peace is to prevail we are the ones who will make it happen. Another Prussian general, von Clausewitz got it right. Von Moltke (1800-1891) should have read von Clausewitz (1780-1831), "War is merely a continuation of politics." John Chypre

  2. John, thank you for this comment. When readers respond to one of our travel stories by critiquing von Moltke and quoting von Clausewitz then NoCrowds knows it is headed in the right direction.

  3. John, thank you for this comment. When readers respond to one of our travel stories by critiquing von Moltke and quoting von Clausewitz then NoCrowds knows it is headed in the right direction.