by Royce Wilson
London is home to a staggering number of the world’s best museums. Whether it’s the treasure trove of ‘what’s what’ from ancient history to be found in the British Museum, the fascinating records of everyday life that is the Victoria and Albert Museum, or even the wonders of technology in the Science Museum, England’s capital city houses some of the truly impressive repositories of times gone by.
There’s no shortage of museums for military historians in London either, which is unsurprising given the United Kingdom’s long and distinguished history and involvement in warfare. The crown jewel of military museums in London is undoubtedly the Imperial War Museum, located south of the Thames in Lambeth.
First opened in 1920 when the ink was barely dry on the Armistice, the museum recently underwent a £40 million ($68.5 million) refurbishment to coincide with the World War I Centenary; giving its WWI galleries a complete overhaul. The extensive project created a central hall area, new gallery spaces dedicated to WWI history and also provided better access and facilities for visitors. Work began in 2012 with the removal of some of the larger display objects and the museum was closed completely between January and July 2013, with the official re-opening by Prince William on July 24, 2014.
As someone who has visited the museum – and thoroughly examined the exhibits within – both before and after the refit, it was interesting for me to compare the differences between the two configurations. One thing that is sadly missing from the main display areas of the museum are the cabinets full of guns – previously a highlight for anyone with an interest in military small arms. That is not to say guns are gone from the museum – far from it. However, you are going to have to look a bit harder to find them and they are not present with quite the same prominence as previously.
The redeveloped WWI galleries now tell the story of WWI and the WWI Experience. The entrance to the gallery is a multimedia map room evoking an officer’s wardroom circa 1914 – it is extremely well done and certainly gives an excellent overview of the state of affairs prior to the outbreak of the war.
The galleries are still very good and evocative of the horrors of war, with exhibits including an artificial sniper’s nest tree, gas alarms, uniforms and equipment. Alongside military items, there are also a range of bits and pieces from ‘the home front’ including examples of care packages and a plaque announcing that a man from the home was away fighting in the war.
One of the highlights of the previous exhibition was a replica trench, which guests could walk through, giving a good idea of how awful life in the trenches would have been for the troops. Curiously, this is now missing, replaced with a more symbolic affair that does not really convey the same sense of what the soldiers would have experienced. Many of the displays are accompanied by extracts from soldiers’ journals or letters, helping paint a better picture of what the war was like for the men on the front lines.
Some of the other exhibits in the museum are particularly enlightening as well and there is a wide range of equipment from other conflicts from WWI and WWII to the present, including aircraft, General Montgomery’s staff car, a Soviet T-34 tank, a BMW motorcycle with sidecar, artillery pieces, a replica atomic bomb and a biological weapons monitoring station from the Gulf War era.
The uppermost level is given over to a detailed and poignant exhibition on the Holocaust and those with a particular interest in military small arms will want to inspect the Secret War galleries, containing a wide range of military firearms and espionage equipment – everything from James Bond-esque spy gadgets through to commando gear and suppressed handguns.
Whether you are a knowledgeable historian or merely curious about the past, there’s no doubting the Imperial War Museum remains one of the premier military museums in the world and a must-see if you are in London.
The Imperial War Museum is located on Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ and is open daily from 10am to 6pm.