31.03.2015
13:42

Imperial War Museum

Address:

Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ

Phone:

020-7416 5000

Website:

www.iwm.org.uk

Opening times:

Daily 10:00–18:00

How to get there:

Tube: Lambeth North

Entry fee:

Free

Additional information:

Café and shop

The museum illustrates and records the experience of war, with particular attention paid to the role played by Britain and the Commonwealth, since the start of the First World War in August 1914. The varied collections tell the story of military and civilian, Allied and enemy, tactical, strategic, social and political aspects of warfare by land, sea and air, employing an extraordinary array of memorabilia, fine art, film, sound archives, background information, interactive audio-visuals, models and reconstructions. In the late 1980s, the museum pioneered the ‘visitor-oriented’ curatorial approach, widely imitated since by other London museums and galleries.

The decision to found the museum was taken by the Cabinet during the First World War, in March 1917, in order to record experience of that conflict. Originally called the National War Museum, interest from the Dominion governments prompted the title Imperial War Museum. In 1936 the museum moved to its present premises, in a building which had been completed in 1815 for the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane. Inmates had included the York Minster arsonist Jonathan Martin, the architect Augustus Pugin (who designed the Houses of Parliament and St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral just across the Lambeth Road), and also Charlie Chaplin’s mother. The two massive side wings of the building were demolished when the hospital moved out to Beckenham in 1930. The museum occupies the surviving central building, with a grand front portico beneath a lantern cupola added in 1846 by Sydney Smirke, architect of the British Museum’s round Reading Room. Around it is a park containing a small Tibetan Peace Garden opened by the Dalai Lama in 1999. In front squat an enormous pair of 15-inch British Naval guns, the last survivors of their type, and a free-standing section of the Berlin Wall painted with a face screaming the words ‘Change your Life’ by the graffiti artist Indiano.

 

Ground Floor

The museum interior was completely re-modelled by Arup Associates in the late 1980s. Rising through the full height of the building is the Large Exhibits Gallery, an airy setting for the most important weapons and vehicles in the collection: guns, tanks, aircraft, bombs and rockets, each labelled with a general description of their type, technical specifications and provenance. One of the first large pieces to join the collection was the 60-pound field gun that took part in operations that led to the capture of Kut-el-Amara and eventually the fall of Baghdad on 11 March 1917. Another is the German mobile mast periscope, here extended to its maximum height of 80ft providing a view over the tree tops in the park, an unusual First World War method of observation, along with the one-man pod designed to be suspended below a zeppelin hidden in the clouds. Other artillery pieces of the era include the 13-pounder gun of East Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, which fired the first British shell of the land war, and also the four-inch QF Mark IV naval gun from the destroyer HMS Lance, which fired the first British shot of the war. The museum’s collection of tanks—a British invention—begins with a Mark V no 19 ‘Devil’ of 1918, of the kind that helped to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Second World War tanks ranged around the room include a Churchill, American M4 Sherman, Russian T-34 and a German Jagdpanther tank destroyer. A German V2 rocket, 47ft tall, dominates the space, the first long-range ballistic missile, a Vergeltungswaffen (reprisal weapon) that hit Britain to devastating effect almost a thousand times between 1944 and the end of the war. A drill version of the Polaris A3 missile, the first submarine-based ballistic missile and the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent from 1968–96, can be compared with a ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb casing of the type dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Aircraft suspended from the roof are a First World War Sopwith Camel 2F1, a Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1A that saw action in the Battle of Britain, an American P-51 Mustang, a German Focke Wulf 190 and Heinkel 162. Naval exhibits include Tamzine, the smallest surviving fishing boat to have taken part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, and a German Biber one-man submarine found sinking off Dover in 1944. The crewman had died from carbon monoxide poisoning after failing to close off the engine exhaust.

 

Lower Ground Floor

The core of the museum is a subterranean maze of themed displays divided into the First World War and Second World War. Here the museum’s three main categories of collection—objects, official material, and personal experience material—are arranged amid busy illustrations of their context. The First World War themes include ‘Recruitment in Britain 1914–1915’ dominated by the famous Kitchener poster ‘Wants You’; ‘Western Front’ featuring a Maxim machine gun from 1902 of the type that forced the opposing armies into trench warfare; ‘War at Sea’ describing the indecisive Battle of Jutland in 1916, the British Naval Blockade and the escalation of German submarine attacks that brought the United States into the conflict; and ‘The Home Front’, where women’s involvement in the war effort prompted radical social change. ‘The Trench Experience’ is a walk-through re-creation using sound, lighting and olfactory effects to suggest a front line trench and dugout on the Somme.

The Second World War includes displays on the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939–40, before the invasion of France, then ‘Blitzkreig’ illustrating that strategy with archive footage and a German motorcycle machine gun, followed by ‘Battle of Britain’ and the forestalling of Nazi invasion plans codenamed ‘Operation Sealion’. ‘Home Front 1940–45’ describes the Blitz, rationing, refugees and the arrival of thousands of American servicemen: ‘oversexed, overpaid and over here’, according to one contemporary account. Other themes are the ‘Mediterranean and Middle East 1940-45’, ‘Eastern Front 1941–45’ and ‘Europe under the Nazis’ (covered in more detail in the Holocaust Exhibition on the Third floor, along with ‘Bomber Offensive’, ‘War in the Far East 1941–45’ and ‘North West Europe 1944–45’. ‘The Blitz Experience’ is a guided walk-through reconstruction of an air-raid shelter and bomb-damaged street on one of the 57 consecutive nights that the city was hit between September 1940 and spring 1941.

Also on this floor, ‘Conflicts since 1945’ goes into the history of the Cold War with a series of small exhibitions on the conflicts in Korea, China and Vietnam, the Far East, Middle East, Cyprus, and the Suez Crisis, the Falklands and the Gulf, along with Terrorism and Peacekeeping. Next door is ‘Monty: Master of the Battlefield’, a memorial exhibition dedicated to Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887–1976). The son of a clergyman and abstemious cadet at Sandhurst, his mid-life was marred by the death of his wife Betty from an insect bite in 1937. He went on to rally the morale of the 8th Army in the North African desert, turning round Britain’s fortunes in November 1942 by defeating Rommel at El Alamein and masterminding the assault on the Normandy beaches, codenamed ‘Overlord’, in 1944.

Accessible from both Ground and Lower Floors, the ‘Children’s War’ is a major exhibition marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War with a look at the conflict through the eyes of young British evacuees—city children sent to the countryside for safety—as well as children who stayed on in towns and cities during the Blitz. Along with a wealth of personal recollections of their experiences, the heart of the walk-through exhibition is a thorough, full-scale reconstruction of a four-up, four-down 1940s house, complete with eiderdowns on steel-frame beds, coal scuttle and clothes mangle.

 

First Floor

Overlooking the Large Exhibits Gallery are more large exhibits, most of which relate to aerial warfare, including the fuselage of a Handley Page Halifax bomber, a Chevrolet truck used by the Long Range Desert Group, the eyes of the infant SAS, and an Argentinian anti-aircraft gun captured during the Falklands War in 1982. Also on this level is the Victoria and George Cross Gallery, where some of the medals awarded respectively for outstanding feats of gallantry in action and civilian acts of courage or bomb disposal are displayed beneath portrait photographs and life stories of their recipients. One such is Sub-Lieutenant John Herbert Babington GC, who in 1940 defused an unexploded bomb that had brought much of Chatham dockyard to a standstill.

 

Second Floor

Also overlooking the Large Exhibits Gallery, are two suites of art galleries. The museum holds some 4,000 works of art commissioned during the First World War initially as an exercise in pictorial propaganda and later as a record and memorial of the conflict. They include work by Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and Sir William Orpen. John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting Gassed (1919) is permanently on display. A large number of works were also commissioned during the Second World War by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee under Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery. Artists included John Piper, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. The Committee gave particular emphasis to life and work in wartime Britain, as in Stanley Spencer’s series of large paintings Shipbuilding on the Clyde, and after 1942 also to foreign subjects. Sculptures in the museum’s collection include a series of portrait busts by Jacob Epstein and maquettes for war memorials by Charles Sargent Jagger. In 1972 the museum established its own Artistic Records Committee to record British forces in war and peace.

 

 

London Museums and Galleries in the Second World War

Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, on 23rd August 1939, the government ordered the evacuation of all major London collections. The British Museum moved the Elgin Marbles into a disused Tube tunnel at the Aldwych. Unable to remove Stanley Spencer’s large-scale The Resurrection, Cookham (1924–27), the Tate protected the painting on site behind a purpose-built brick wall. Within 11 days most of the National Gallery’s paintings had been moved by rail and road to north Wales. Initially many were housed at Penrhyn Castle, where the owner’s drunken behaviour gave the gallery staff serious misgivings about the collection’s safety. Other institutions also relied on country houses—the V&A sent some of their collection to Montacute House in Somerset, the Wallace Collection to Hellens in Herefordshire—until the fall of France brought the Luftwaffe within range of these more remote areas and suggestions arose in the press that home-owners were keen to store artefacts in order to dodge army billets and avoid working-class evacuees. In September 1940, five large chambers in the Manod slate quarries near Blaenau Ffestiniog, north Wales, were identified by the National Gallery as a suitable bomb-proof repository for their pictures. Specially adapted within a year for temperature and humidity control, the storage rooms here also provided a sterling opportunity to catalogue and conserve the collection. Meanwhile, throughout the war, the almost empty National Gallery in London staged enormously popular lunchtime concerts for charity. Organised by the great concert pianist Dame Myra Hess, the first of more than 1,500 consecutive recitals was given on 10th October 1939. Another very popular morale-boosting initiative began in early 1942, in response to a letter to The Times from the sculptor Charles Wheeler, when the first ‘Picture of the Month’, Rembrandt’s portrait of Margaretha de Geer (1661), was displayed in the gallery. Forty-three pictures were transported to and from Manod on a three-week cycle for the duration of the war. In his capacity as chair of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, Kenneth Clark also arranged for a continuous series of exhibitions by official British war artists.

 

 

Third Floor

The Holocaust Exhibition is a major project which opened to considerable acclaim in June 2000 after four years of research and preparation. At its heart are personal recollections of the industrial-scale murder of Jews and others organised and perpetrated in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. Not recommended for children under 14 years of age, profoundly disturbing images of the mass disposal of corpses and an annotated bleached-white scale model of Auschwitz are introduced by simple displays placing the genocide in its historical context. Objects exhibited range from a typewriter used to draw up deportation orders to a button found in one of the death pits.

 

Fourth Floor

Crimes against humanity’ (not recommended for children under 16) is based around a specially commissioned 30-minute film illustrating and interpreting more recent genocide and ethnic atrocities around the world. Interactive monitors mounted in plain white desks provide details of a grim succession of appalling mass race- and hate-crimes from 1945 to the present day.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.

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