diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 02, 2014

Of all the anniversaries due in 2014, the centenary of World War 1 looms largest. It'll be the most significant centenary of our lifetimes, thus far, and it'll go on a bit too. Let's hope the official commemoration stays the right side of respectful at all times, and never overspills from remembrance to overt jingoism.

Where better to remember 1914, you'd think, than the Imperial War Museum. The Lambeth outpost of this repository of all things military focuses on 20th century conflict, and seems just the place you'd go for thoughtful reflection on the Great War. Except, that is, that all the WW1-related displays have been removed. And then on Monday the whole place closes for six months.

It's all for a good reason. The IWM (London) is undergoing a major transformation at the moment, has been for some time, and plans to reopen with a bang in July. Not literally, obviously, those two huge cannons outside the main entrance no longer fire. But the upgrade will create a newly reconfigured atrium, a long overdue central staircase and an extended cafe. More importantly there'll also be brand new First World War Galleries, replacing the existing set-up with "immersive spaces", "objects large and small" and "interactive digital displays". It'll be good, the place has an excellent track record, but the "recreated trench" does sound suspiciously like what's been there for years.

In the meantime, what can you see if you get down to Lambeth Road before the end of the weekend? For a start, you'll need to enter via the side entrance in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, not up the grand steps at the front. This is a very underwhelming experience, temporarily so, like creeping into the back of a sports centre via a fire exit. Off to the right is the queue for the toilets, beside some minor stairs, but keep going up and eventually you'll emerge at what passes for reception. Here a slightly strident lady tried to sell me a guide book, at what seemed the bargain price of £2.50, whilst failing to mention that much of what was detailed within was currently closed.

Part-closure becomes very apparent once through the doors into the main atrium. The vast majority of this is sealed behind a barrier of corrugated metal and long blue drapes, behind which the sound of drilling and power tools can sometimes be heard. It's very hard to see what's going on on the other side, even as you ascend the building during your tour, although you can get the odd peek of alcoves and fresh staircase. Don't expect to go down into the usual D Day exhibit or the old First and Second World War galleries, they no longer exist. Instead what's left of the ground floor involves skirting round the edge of the building site, perhaps stumbling across the cafe or shop, or the sole remaining exhibition down here.

"A Family In Wartime" is a splendid collection of objects and information based round one family's experience of World War Two. That'll be the Allpress family from Stockwell, selected because one of the girls married a museum employee after the war, and he built a model of the family home at 69 Priory Grove. This takes pride of place at the entrance, then all the usual WW2 themes are explored according to how they affected Betty, Nellie, Gladys et al. It's very nicely done, and a bit different to the usual, plus it's fascinating to see how postwar life turned out for the ten children. I was also wholly intrigued by a huge detailed map of SW London (from Battersea to Brixton) showing bomb damage on a house by house level - a stark reminder of how pure chance decreed the reduction of homes to rubble. This exhibition supposedly closes on 27th April 2014, according to a sign outside, that is. In truth it shuts on Sunday, obviously, but I do wonder just how recently next week's shutdown was decided.

Take the stairs and there's still stuff to see upstairs. Not much on the first floor, to be fair, bar the long-standing exhibition on spies called Secret War. It's good, but not well suited to excess New Year visitors as its narrow aisles get blocked very easily. There are yet more Spies upstairs, this time for a (paid for) Horrible Histories exhibition aimed firmly at kids. Alongside are a couple of galleries containing art and photography - perhaps not what the IWM's best known for, but very nicely done. The current "art" features paintings of the Architecture of War, including Pipers, Raviliouses and a Searle. As for photography, Donovan Wylie's thought-provoking set compares military lookouts around the world, not least those despoiling the scenic hills of Northern Ireland.

If you've not been to the IWM lately then the top floor will be new. It's the The Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes, which features the peer's extensive collection of George and Victoria Crosses. He owns 183 VCs, most on display here along with a summary of their owner's heroics and their full set of medals. If you're a people person this'll move you, and the hands-on reproduction copies of The Victor comic are a nice touch too. But it's the third floor every Londoner needs to visit, which is the entrance to The Holocaust Exhibition. The subject is explored in enormous detail, from the gradual entrapment of Jews as Hitler's empire grew to the appalling reality of the Final Solution. I spent a chastening hour here over New Year, because it never hurts to be reminded where intolerance leads.

The messages of WW2 and the Cold War are still heard loudly in what remains of the Imperial War Museum, should you decide to nip in before the place closes on Monday. But for World War One come back in the summer, for a fresh angle on human conflict, and the centenary that lasts four and a half years.

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