LONDON A-Z An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums Sikorski Museum
Location: 20 Princes Gate, SW7 1PT [map] Open: weekdays 2pm-4pm (1st Saturday of the month 10am-4pm) Admission: free Brief summary: exiled Polish wartime archive Website:www.sikorskimuseum.co.uk Time to set aside: about an hour
The people of Poland haven't had it easy over the last millennium, regularly overrun and overtaken by their more belligerent neighbours. When the country was finally 'liberated' from the clutches of Adolf Hitler, and communist Russia took over instead, exiled Poles sought somewhere abroad to preserve their country's wartime records and treasures. Thus was the Sikorski Institute founded, safely within Allied territory, on the southern fringe of Hyde Park just along from the Royal Albert Hall. Today it's both an archive and a museum, hidden away in a row of villas mainly reserved for foreign embassies, and usually with a policeman pacing up and down nearby. Ring the bell at number 20 and a very grateful country will welcome you inside.
Within is a spacious terraced house with a central spiral stairwell and large airy rooms to front and back. The walls are decorated with Polish art, mostly military in theme, and each of the visitable rooms houses a different selection of Eastern European keepsakes. Room 1 is devoted to the military leader after whom the museum is named - Władysław Sikorski. His desk, his bust, that sort of thing - while all his very many medals are displayed in another room upstairs. Room 2 has a few historic pieces and some rather lovely Polish porcelain, but other than that it's pretty much militaria all the way. Don't panic - that's slightly more interesting than it sounds.
At the foot of the stairs is a bronze sculpture of Wojtek the bear, adopted as a cub by serving WW2 soldiers, then enlisted into the army when he grew into a lumbering (yet helpful) beast. Wojtek saw action at the battle ofMonteCassino, an Italian bloodbath in which Polish troops were eventually victorious seizing a heavily defended hilltop town. Monte Cassino gets a lot of mentions around the museum, being a victory of which the Polish Government in Exile were extremely proud, although it wasn't a battle I'd previously been familiar with. Indeed, I think it surprised my tour guide that I was neither Polish myself nor one of the UK's 1 million or so Polish descendant citizens. Everybody else on the tour was, all four of them.
Upstairs, a rare treat. Secured beneath a plastic cover is one of only two Enigma coding machines still on display in this country (the other, not surprisingly, is at Bletchley Park). This was acquired, and its code first cracked, by a bunch of Polish mathematicians before WW2 even started. They worked out how to decipher the millions of combinations of rotors and leads in this evil typewriter, allowing the Allies to know what over-confident German generals were up to. Machine complexity was later greatly increased, but Alan Turing and his pioneering 'Bombe' computer eventually unravelled that too, thereby helping to end the war two years earlier than might otherwise have been the case. It's hard to believe that such a lowly black contraption, all keys and cables in a small wooden box, had so great an effect on our global future.
And yes, more Polish military stuff to follow. The cap Władysław Sikorski was wearing during his suspicious fatal plane crash. Some swords. Lots of banners and military colours (including a liberator's red and white flag hastily made out of a bedsheet). Various leaflets, posters and booklets (in Polish, obviously). And all brought to life by a guide who himself saw action as a Polish post-war soldier, and without whom it all might have been rather dry.
And ssh, don't mention this bit to the staff, but one of the best bits about the tour was the opportunity to see inside a proper Kensington embassy-type building. The Iranian Embassy, location of an infamoussnooker-interruptingsiege in 1980, is only four doors up the road and must look pretty much identical inside. I imagined hostages holed up in the echoing rooms, and abseiling SAS men breaking in through the front windows, and gas from stun grenades swirling down the precipitous central staircase. And then I pulled myself together and thanked my guide and saw myself back out onto Princes Gate. A unique, and entirely eye-opening experience. by tube: South Kensington, Knightsbridge