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The Imperial War Museum, remembering the contribution made
Imperial War Museum (London)
Member Name: julwhite
Imperial War Museum (London)
Advantages: Fascinating museum, lots to see, no admission charge
Disadvantages: In a few places some visitor behaviour was disruptive
This review is of the Imperial War Museum in London, a military museum marking the contribution made by the armed forces over the centuries.
I visited the museum in early April 2012, and for anyone interested in going, it's best to make a visit sooner rather than later as from August 2012 many of the large objects are being moved out, and in January 2013 the museum will be closed for six months for a major renovation.
Like many other of the London museums, entrance is free of charge to everyone (some special exhibits have an extra charge) because of a grant from the Department of Culture, although donations can be made, or a guide book purchased to help them (the museum is a charity) with the costs of running such a superb museum. Making the museum free of charge has made a large difference to the number of visitors, up from 660,000 ten years ago to nearly 1,100,000 last year.
There is a large gun outside the front of the museum which helps identifies you've found the right place, which is located near to Lambeth North tube station, and not far from the Elephant & Castle and Waterloo stations. There are also many buses which go by the museum and some nearby bike racks which are part of the Mayor's bike hire scheme, sponsored by Barclays. There is no parking at the museum, other than street parking, which is expensive and the museum is inside the congestion charge zone. So most visitors will probably opt for public transport to get here.
Entering the museum you can see there are a number of floors, which a large number of bigger exhibits such as planes supported from the ceiling, tanks, large guns. The context and description of each of these larger items is provided and the children at the museum seemed to really enjoy wandering around these.
On my visit I went to a number of the galleries, starting on the lower floor, which is a look at the wars which Britain has been involved with over the last century. There is a reconstruction of a World War One trench and area where the blitz is recreated to help understanding in a more visual way, but there are also a large number of exhibits and displays to walk around. Most of these were well signed, although it was sometimes hard to match up the number on the information panel with the item in the display cases to ascertain more about it, but overall it was an interesting visit. Visitors are guided around so they discover more about these wars in roughly a date order, so starting at the First World War, then the reasons for the Second World War, then the war itself, and then more later conflicts such as the Falklands and Iraq.
I visited the museum on a Sunday and so there were many families and visitors generally, making viewing a little difficult in places, so I didn't see too much of the Secret War exhibition, which was a look at spies and espionage throughout recent times. They had a display of James Bond type items that the agents would use to help them spy, and although this wasn't a large display area, it was worth visiting because of the fascinating array of objects to be seen.
Back up to the ground floor, there was an exhibition there called "A Family in Wartime", which looks at the realities of living in a war, not just the obvious dangers of being bombed, but also the practicalities, such as food, clothing and transport. The displays in this area were quite visual, and younger visitors seemed to be enjoying this, and I heard a few older visitors explaining to their relatives their memories of war. Certainly given that, it showed the exhibition was succeeding in its intention to get people talking.
One area that under 16s were advised not to go was on one of the top floors, which was a look at the Holocaust. There were some horrendous images, sometimes very visible images which were directly shocking, such as the treatment of the Jews, and indeed other minorities, in the concentration camps. However one of the most powerful images to me was of a letter which a mother had written to her son, her only child, who had been taken from her. She wrote to him, expectantly, until one day her letter was returned to her with "not at this address". She must have known his fate, as he had indeed died, but receiving back that letter which would have been written with such love must have been an horrific moment for the lady, and the image of this was haunting.
There Holocaust exhibition was haunting, and most people treated it with great respect, although there were a few people shouting and messing about in the area near some of the most poignant and upsetting displays. It did neither them, or the very light touch of staffing provided in the museum, any credit. The museum proudly announces how many volunteers it gets, and how it can't use all of them, so if anyone was willing to help in this exhibit, it might be useful.
However, that point aside, the exhibition was thought provoking and fascinating, a reminder to all. A significant number of people looked quite downcast when leaving the gallery, so its effect was clear, let alone those who emotions were private and not visible.
From tragedy to bravery, on the top floor of the museum is the collection of the world's largest number of Victoria Crosses, and a large number of George Crosses. The gallery is named after Lord Ashcroft, the sometimes controversial figure, but he has donated 5 million pounds to help assembly this gallery, and his money has helped remind visitors of some many of the fascinating stories of those awarded these medals. He must be rightly proud of what he has achieved here in conjunction with the museum, having collected all of these medals, and then made them available for display.
In summary therefore, the museum was fascinating and too much for me to see in one visit, so I'll make a repeat visit before they close for six months at the beginning of next year. They suggest a couple of hours to half a day for a visit, and to see everything, half a day seems about right. There's enough for kids to do to keep them occupied for a reasonable period of time, and there's the rest of London to explore nearby should they get bored.
Also on site are a restaurant, which is reasonably priced given the location, and a shop, which is a bit more expensive, but at least the funds are used to help the museum. There are toilets available in the museum, and the museum is also suitable for disabled visitors. But anyone needing more help need only ask the staff at the museum.
Definitely highly recommended, and I noted there was no attempt to glorify war, indeed if anything, it served as a reminder of just how futile war is.
Summary: Excellent museum in my opinion, worth a visit for all ages
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