London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

The Imperial War Museum - An American View

22/04/2002, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 22637 votes

Any history of the 20th century will probably lead one to reach the conclusion that it was one of almost continuous war and conflict on a scale greater than known by any previous generation. And for any student of hostilities in the past hundred years the staring point for any study should be London’s Imperial War Museum, housed in the building that gave the English language the word bedlam.

Think of it this way; scholars tell us that to really understand a subject it helps to go back to the source material and in the case of the 20th century a visit to the Imperial War Museum is a visit to the source material for many of its important events.

In reality the domed building that housed the third site of the Bethlem or Bethlehem Royal Hospital, a facility for the insane, is only part of the broader institution known as the Imperial War Museum. Londoners knew the hospital, which originally started as the Priory of Saint Mary Bethlehem as Bedlam; the word has since passed into the English language as meaning pandemonium or a kind topsy-turvydom and chaos.

Even as the Great War or World War I, was still being fought it was decided by the British Cabinet that a museum should be created to collect, archive and display material from the war. Since the project had the support of the governments of the Dominions the museum became the Imperial War Museum, officially founded, after the guns had fallen silent, by an act of Parliament in 1920.

The Imperial War Museum was originally housed in the Crystal Palace and from the mid-20's through the mid-30's the museum was located in a couple of galleries in the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. But in 1936 the Duke of York (later to become King George VI) would help open the museum in its new location, the former Priory of Saint Mary Bethlehem. During World War II the museum’s scope was broadened and since the 50's it has further diversified its mission to include all wars since 1914 in which Britain or Commonwealth nations have taken part.

A sad note regarding the move from the Crystal Palace to South Kensington is that due to a lack of space a large collection of artefacts and equipment from the First World War had to be scrapped. Among the items that had to be destroyed were rare, irreplaceable items such as railway guns and German tanks.

It’s easy enough to reach the Imperial War Museum- take the Bakerloo line on the Underground to either the Lambeth North or Elephant and Castle stations and then it’s about a five-minute walk.

On the well-tended grounds outside visitors must first pass a couple of sentries who stand guard 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year- two large naval guns from a World War I battleships-one from HMS Resolution and one from HMS Ramillies.

When you enter you’ll be greeted by the large exhibits area, which includes a biplane from World War I; a German V-2 rocket from the Second World War along with tanks, artillery pieces and other examples of equipment used to wage war. On the main floor you will also find specialized exhibits such as the one detailing the history of the Royal Navy’s submarine service.

Winston Churchill is credited with being the inspiration behind the development of the tank when he was First Lord of the Admiralty- the story goes that to confuse the Germans the proposed "land cruiser" was dubbed a "tank" to make the Germans believe it was a contraption for transporting water.

In the large exhibit area is a example of a British Mark V tank, which in 1918 represented the leading edge of modern warfare. Its crew of eight could cross a battlefield at a speed of four miles per hour. Later examples of armour on display include a British Matilda as well as American Grant and Sherman tanks, which by then had taken on the more familiar appearance of a metal hull with rotating turret and gun atop.

Even wondered what life in the trenches on the Western Front was like? Downstairs you’ll find the ‘Trench Experience’, a recreation of the conditions suffered by British ‘Tommie’ during the Great War. You’re enveloped by the smell of cordite and the sounds of an artillery bombardment and the sights of wounded men being tended by corpsmen in an aid station. A few minutes in the ‘trenches’ and you’ll gain a new respect for the men who endured months in the foul conditions found in France.

Advance now some twenty years to a different experience; the ‘Blitz Experience’ and feel, for just a few moments, what Londoners felt for months during those dark and heroic days as the Luftwaffe tried in vain to break a nation’s resolve through aerial bombing. You sit in a small bomb shelter that shakes and vibrates from the force of the aerial attack above ground while you hear the sound of voices singing songs to keep everyone’s spirits up.

While the main emphasis is on Britain’s role in the numerous wars of the 20th century, the Imperial War Museum covers the parts played by a number of other nations including the United States, Russia, Germany and France.

Exhibits deal with various aspects of war in the past century such as air war, war at sea and conflicts since the Second World War including Indo-China, the Falklands and the Gulf War and the collection of war paintings, photography and graphic art is one of the best in the world. Other sections deal with war on the home front as well as secrets and spies- the impact of espionage on war.

In all of the areas covered the approach is a combination of "history from the top down" and "history from the bottom up"- in other words the great men as well as the common man. This is in keeping with the museum’s mission of trying to explain not just the military aspects of the 20th century but the forces that brought about so much conflict.

An exhibition that deals with the particularly tragic aspect of the human side of conflict is the Holocaust Exhibition, which traces and details the efforts of Nazi Germany to wipe entire races of people from the demographic map of Europe. From the beginnings of German persecution to the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps the Holocaust Exhibition is a grim remainder of one of the darkest stains on the fabric of civilization. (A quick aside - visitors with young children might do better to skip this exhibit)

Not only is the Imperial War Museum home to numerous fascinating and informative exhibits, its collections also draw historians and researchers from around the world. Among the collections: documents that include private papers such as dairies, letters and papers of participants in the wars of the 20th century; film and video tapes that encompass the history of cinema technology; a photo archive containing over six million pictures, a reference library of books, pamphlets and other periodicals; and a collection of firearms, equipment and military badges and heraldry.

Beneath the dome of the museum is the reading room where scholars from around the world come to study British military history.

As mentioned earlier the Imperial War Museum is really more than the building in London: other sites include HMS Belfast, the cruiser that took part in the Battle of the North Cape in which the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst met its fate; the Cabinet War Rooms, from where Winston Churchill led the fight against Axis tyranny; and the Imperial War Museum Duxford, which includes the American Air Museum in Britain, honouring the contributions and sacrifice of the Americans who carried the air war from Britain to Germany.

Some may prefer to see the irony of putting a museum dealing with modern warfare in a place that once served as an asylum for the insane while others choose to view the Imperial War Museum as a reminder of the sacrifice of free men and women to protect that freedom. Whatever your outlook on the matter be sure that a visit to the Imperial War Museum will be an exciting and enlightening experience.


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