I had, to some extent, been avoiding the Imperial War Museums. As anyone who does know me knows, I generally try to avoid the ‘war’ parts of history. Or more specifically, the parts that focus on specific campaigns, battle tactics, and weapons. I just don’t generally have an interest in this. I’m definitely a social historian. I’m much more likely to remember what someone ate the morning of the battle, or their diary entry about it and how they felt, or how this affected art or social structures, than I am the formation they led or what type of weapon they may have been carrying. Partly, I think this avoidance is also because military museums in general tend to skirt around some of the more difficult issues, or do not talk about contemporary issues at all, or in some cases are just generally quite outdated, or focus solely on these battle tactics, with giant maps with arrows and dioramas everywhere, or all tend to have very similar exhibits.
While at the IWM I think I also figured out another reason, to some extent. I tend to seek out, at least to me, what is unique, or something I haven’t seen before. Whereas war and battle, particularly the two world wars, are often talked about even at sites or museums you wouldn’t expect, and particularly during this few years now when there are important anniversaries for each. I don’t seek out these exhibitions, because I know I will see them anyway- whether an exhibit at the London Transport Museum, or the war tunnels at Dover castle, or temporary exhibitions about CWAC or the effects of the wars back in Canada. We also learn about these events in school. I’m not saying we shouldn’t- they have changed the course of history and effected so much and it is important to learn about them- or that there should not be exhibitions, but just saying why I don’t seek these experiences out. I was thinking about this, partially because I was at the museum, and also thinking back to a friend whose ‘thing’ IS more focused on the wars, and so made sure to visit the Churchill War Rooms when here in London (I still haven’t), but who didn’t care about seeing the painted Chapter House in Westminster, or any of the tombs and monuments. To some degree I understand, and to some degree I was baffled. And that’s where the uniqueness comes in for me. The Chapter House at Westminster is a rare example of surviving medieval painting, and housed in an amazing Gothic, medieval cathedral (something we’re short on in Canada), and right outside is one of the oldest surviving doors in England! To me, I can see guns, turrets, armour, war rooms, diaries, tanks, etc, at several different museums and sites, just in London alone, and whether I’m trying or not. But I can only see these rare surviving paintings in one place! I won’t stumble across them unintentionally. And I think, for me, that is the difference. Even if it’s not your thing, the uniqueness, rarity, age, awe at survival, is what can make it interesting, even if you don’t like the actual thing. So interesting that everyone has their own ‘thing’, for so many different reasons!
Now, onto the actual museum!
You’re probably wondering at this point why I was even there. Quite simply, my time in London is starting to run out, and I’m on a mission to see as much as possible! Free also helps. (Have any suggestions of must-do’s that you think I may have not seen/been to yet? Leave a comment below! Museum, historic site, restaurant, cocktail bar… Keep in mind, I’ve been here for more than a year, have English Heritage, National Trust, and Museums Association Memberships, and the first Open Doors London weekend I was here for, I went to 14 sites… Think of it as a challenge!)
Overall, the museum is intriguing, overwhelming, confusing, interesting, stimulating, glorifying, sobering, thought provoking, all at once. Despite it not being my ‘thing’ I still spent several hours here- partially because it’s quite large. The layout is a bit confusing. It’s apparent you start at the bottom and work your way up, but after that, it’s surprisingly difficult to work out how to get up the stairs… I wasn’t the only person confused. Because most of the upper galleries are in a big U shape, it means that any sort of chronology in the wings of the U are a bit confusing to follow and don’t make much sense. Once you figure that out, it’s ok though. But I do recommend grabbing a map.
As most military museums, this one had major galleries for the two world wars, as well as other themes, such as the homefront, the holocaust, secret war (spies), etc. These were laid out to varying effectiveness and interest. The first world war gallery is conflicting. On the one hand, it is amazing. Video, sound, hands on activities, artifacts, textures, a trench that you walk through. All of the latest technologies and techniques are used in this gallery. All of them. Which makes it a bit overwhelming. I had no idea where to look or where to start, so much was happening. I was torn between awe and appreciation at the attractive and interactive design, and just too much stimuli. It was also very crowded. While I think all the activities are great, I also noticed it made it a lot harder for teachers to get their class to keep moving through the gallery, since all the kids were trying to do all of them. (Bonus for keeping their attention though!).
At one point walking through the trench I overheard two girls (maybe 12 or 13?) discussing this exhibit- sounds of explosions, tank overhead, trying to imagine what it would have been like, covered in the mud, cold, wounded. Clearly at least this part was effective. I do think it’s an effective technique- some degree of reconstruction and immersion, separating from the outside world and trying to put you in the situation. In the Military Museums in Calgary, AB, there is also a trench reconstruction (although maybe even more well done, in my opinion), which I think is what most kids do remember. You can’t help it.
Most of the other galleries lacked the attractiveness and flashiness of this gallery. Although maybe that’s ok, given how overwhelming it potentially is. Although maybe some of that could have been spread out a bit more throughout the museum. On the other hand, I can’t think of too many exhibits that needed too much more updating- just in comparison everything seems a bit lacklustre? (I visited a few weeks ago already, and despite my notes, I can’t exactly recall the other permanent galleries as well. Maybe they were all completely fine. )
I did enjoy several of the temporary exhibition galleries. These featured both more historically based exhibitions, as well as contemporary exhibitions and commissioned art pieces. In these galleries the museum was not afraid to address some of the more difficult issues surrounding war and its aftermath, and I think this is important. Any museum should be able not just to address historical topics and facts, but should increasingly become a place to talk about issues and ideas. I appreciated this very much.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the Lee Miller photography exhibition. Not only do I have a sincere appreciation for photography (her work is amazing!), but this is also where the social history connections happened for me. This explored the work of Lee Miller before, during, and after the war, and her life in general, and it is this more personal level that helps me make connections and identify with a subject or time period. I feel this type of exhibition might also help bring in a wider audience- from exploring Miller’s career as a Vogue model and photographer, to her friendships with Picasso and Man Ray, to her time as a photojournalist during the war, I think there is a lot here to appeal to more people- art, social history, fashion, photography, war. Fascinating.
Finally, I did also visit the Holocaust exhibition. What was most interesting to me at this time was the parallels I could not help to draw between the Holocaust and the current refugee situation, predominantly in Syria. Quotations and statistics seemed to jump off the walls at me. This also highlighted how important it is to know our history, expand our worldviews, visit museums and sites- to promote knowledge, understanding, tolerance, see where we’ve been before, and how we can do better. Museums and historic sites can certainly be places to while away a few pleasant hours, enjoying amazing art and a cup of tea in the café, but they are also our places of memory and history.
Some quotations that stood out to me:
“the world seemed to be divided into two parts- those places where jews could not live, and those where they could not enter” May 23, 1936, Dr Weizmann.
“Just recovering from the century’s worst economic recession, countries were reluctant to take in refugees… Many of the refugees has to stay in camps”
“For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing” Edmund Burke
“where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people”
From a video featuring survivors:
“never condemn outright… not for race or religious prejudice. Individuals of every nation are good”
“You are safest in a society which is tolerant, celebrates differences, where religious pluralism is a wonder”
Some sobering thoughts to end on. But I do think it really points out that we can take away real lessons from museums, and we should.
Overall, I don’t think military focused museums and sites are still my ‘thing’ but I did have a good experience, and enjoyed several of the temporary exhibitions, and had several reflecting moments. I’ll try to be more open to sites like this in future, although I don’t think I’ll ever know what tank was in the central display area, or what massive gun was outside. I will continue to connect to the human element though- a section of the Berlin wall, the evolution of a photographer, a quotation from a survivor. There’s always so much to take away.
Have you been to the IWM? What do you think of the First World War gallery?
Do you have a ‘thing’ that others just don’t get, or don’t understand why they don’t get it? Share!
Have you ever had a particularly sobering or thought provoking experience at a museum or site? Maybe even one that was unexpected?