diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 18, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 7: Imperial War Museum

Location: Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm
Admission: free (some exhibitions cost)
5-word summary: military might and reflective remembrance
Website: www.iwm.org.uk
Time to set aside: at least an afternoon

Just down the road from Lambeth North station, just that little bit further than the original Bakerloo line ventured, stands the imposing Imperial War Museum. The jingoistic name probably deters a lot of more sensitive souls from visiting, wrongly expecting that the place is full of guns, artillery and body armour. Which is a shame, because that's only partially true. I was in the area, so I thought I'd pay the former lunatic asylum a visit.

Once you get past the queue at the cash desk (which always strikes me as strange in a free museum, but I guess they need the opportunity to flog you a £3.50 audio guide) you enter into a tall airy entrance hall packed with the machinery of war. Mighty rockets rise up from the floor (that's a V2, that's a Polaris). Field guns and tanks are scattered around for intimate perusal (that's a Howitzer, that's a Sherman). A selection of classic warplanes hang across the ceiling (that's a Sopwith Camel, that's a Focke and yes, that's a Spitfire). There's nothing here over 100 years old because the museum concentrates on 20th century conflicts, from trench warfare to more modern genocide. But for me the jewels in the collection aren't these large objects of military strength, they're the exhibitions spread across the six floors behind.

As you might expect, the majority of the museum is given over to remembering the First and Second World Wars. Downstairs is a traditional glass-cased walkthrough of the history of each, complete with a fibreglass WW1 trench to shuffle down and a blacked-out WW2 air raid shelter experience. There's a special area devoted to D-Day, in some depth, as well as a skim through some of the later global conflicts of the 20th century. I was especially impressed by The Children's War, an extensive exhibition recounting the experiences of evacuees and those left to fight WW2 on the Home Front. Like all the best history it's delivered as much through written and spoken testimony as through collections of appropriate artefacts. Best of all was the chance to walk through a full size mocked-up 1930s semi-detached house, peering into the period kitchen, austere bedrooms and gadget-free parlour. It's hard to remember that for most of the children being taken around the exhibition this is a glimpse back into the long lost past, whereas I could easily imagine my parents and grandparents sitting down at the dining room table for a rationed meal or hiding inside the steel cage of a squat Morrison Shelter during an air raid.

But you have to ascend to the third floor to enter the most thought-provoking galleries of all - the Holocaust Exhibition. Two floors of the museum have been given over to detailing the Nazis' so-called Final Soulution, starting with an in-depth exploration of the politics and propaganda which allowed mass genocide to sneak up almost unnoticed. Due attention is paid to the creeping tide of oppression as Hitler's borders expanded, notably across eastern Europe, and it's chilling to hear genuine first person testimony every step of the way. The journey to (and through) Auschwitz is remembered in graphic detail, and the inhumanity of this place of extinction is brought home by the tales of a handful fortunate enough to survive. You won't leave unmoved. And if a few gung-ho Playstation addicts visit the museum expecting bloody war but discover instead this heartfelt plea to peace and tolerance, the museum has done its job well.
by tube: Lambeth North

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