Imperial War Museum review
When was the last time that Britain lost a war? Let me think... apart from the Romans and the Vikings and the Normans, and the Hundred Years War, and the First Boer War, and that war against Mel Gibson in Scotland, I can't think of a single time that someone actually managed to beat us. Obviously you can't include the American War of Independence because that was technically against ourselves. And Iraq and Afghanistan were half-wins and Libya was a win for about five minutes so I'm still counting those. And of course we won the World Cup in 1966 as well so we've certainly had our fair share of victories, but our days of winning wars without allies are probably behind us -- we're the military equivalent of a retired general now. We've still got our old uniform pressed and ready to go but all our best weapons are hanging from the roof of the Imperial War Museum.
When you walk into the entrance hall the first thing you see is a Spitfire and a Harrier Jump Jet dangling like a chandelier. They've got a V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket in here as well (the V2 looks big enough to land a man on the moon!). The rest of the vehicles are tottering off the balconies. You can see them poking their noses out upstairs: an armoured car with its front wheels hanging off the edge... a piece of artillery with its gun barrels butting out... it reminds me of an advent calendar. There are four floors and twenty-four windows, and every one of them has a military vehicle in it.
After an inevitable bit of British Empire bashing (nobody's allowed to talk about the Empire these days without first apologising for it) the exhibits move straight onto the First World War. I do like the gloomy atmosphere of these rooms with the sound of airplane engines flying over low, galloping horses hooves, gunfire and shells exploding -- the soundtrack is pretty relentless -- but I wish they wouldn't focus exclusively on the horror of it. Obviously I appreciate that war is awful, but every placard seems to have a moral on it. When they talk about a defeat they focus on the futility and stupidity of the commanders. When they talk about a victory they bemoan the battalions we wasted. Happy events like the famous football game in 1914 get quickly dismissed with a couple of photos and a paragraph of text, then it's straight back to the muddy bloody battlefields of the Somme.
They've got a decent collection of trench mortars, rifles, gas shells and grenades. There are plenty of uniforms and helmets, wartime posters and photos of them lining up, signing up, marching off, and getting carted off. There are plenty of sit-down movies you can watch as well: silent movies of what life was like in the trenches.
They've got a decent trench exhibit with a Mark V tank lumbering up and over the edge, about to land its tank tracks on your head. Silhouettes of the soldiers are running up and down the barbed wire line whilst a shower of mud and thunder is playing above your head.
The Second World War gallery is rather lame in comparison because the Imperial War Museum also run the Churchill War Rooms, and they seem to have shared their exhibits with that. I actually think that the Churchill War Rooms is better for WW2 because there's much more about the politics of it. HMS Belfast contains the best naval stuff, the RAF Museum has the best planes, and the Imperial War Museum is just left with a few random pieces of military equipment: jeeps and artillery pieces, a couple of staff cars and a Sherman tank, a midget submarine, the cockpit of a Lancaster Bomber, and the mangled wreck of a Japanese fighter. That's about it for the big stuff. There's practically nothing about the battles themselves.
The one aspect of World War II that the Imperial War Museum does excel at is -- surprise, surprise -- the horror of it. And I'm talking about proper horror: the Holocaust. I'm pretty sure that young kids were banned from entering this exhibit the last time I visited, but they seem to have relaxed the rules now because it's full of school kids with clipboards and pens. To be honest I'm not entirely sure that it's suitable for them because the photos focus on pyramid piles of corpses and skeletal humans about to be shot. You can see the terrified looks on their faces, see their blood and vomit-stained clothes, and walk through one of the cattle truck carriages that carried them to Auschwitz. The whole thing is clearly designed to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible, and it does its job well. It's the kind of exhibit that people walk around in silence, and then come out feeling guilty to be human.
The 'Secret War' section contains some interesting spy equipment that wouldn't look out of place in a James Bond movie: transmitters and transceivers hidden inside bombproof briefcases, shaving brushes with concealed cameras in them, matches that doubled-up as invisible pens. This is also where you'll find a captured Enigma machine (although you really need to visit Bletchley Park if you want to learn more about that). They've got a lot about the SAS and the Iranian Embassy siege as well.
The exhibits on Northern Ireland and the Falklands are basically a waste of time -- just a few black and white photos, newspaper pages, and Margaret Thatcher's Spitting Image doll. The war against Saddam is quickly glossed over as well.
To sum it all up: if you're interested in World War I then it's definitely worth a visit. If you're more into World War II then try the Churchill War Rooms instead (for the politics of it), HMS Belfast (for the naval battles), the RAF Museum (for the air battles) and Bletchley Park (for the code-cracking stuff). And if you're interested in much earlier wars then don't even bother -- there's nothing! -- go to the National Army Museum or Guards' Museum instead.
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I’ve been here more than once…