Friday, August 12, 2011

The Imperial War Musuem

I originally planned on going directly to Portsmouth from Heathrow, but after talking to a few young historians (Ed and John) at the end of the school year, I felt is was a necessity to begin my trip with a stop at the Imperial War Museum in London. I have been to a few military museums in my life, and this one ranks with the best – if not the best overall.

Walking in to the main foyer of the museum, you are overwhelmed with military vehicles and large arms– tanks, antiaircraft guns, a two man torpedo, a WWI era ambulance, and more. One of the tanks is Monty’s (General Bernard Montgomery of the British Army), the actual tank he used in North Africa and Scily and one that I have seen on film countless times before. The main entrance alos has a great exhibit of life on a British WWII submarine, geared for children. My kids would love it, trying to keep a sub afloat, using listening tubes, climbing in the con, and learning how a toilet works underwater.

The main permanent exhibits in the museum deal with twentieth century warfare. I began with the World War I exhibit, which is the finest I have ever seen. The chronology of the war is presented clearly, the artifacts are awesome, and it has the best collection of trench warfare materials that I have ever seen. There is a great “Trench Experience” that you can walk through – dark, smelly, soldiers telling about life in the trenches and going “over the top”, just like we do in 8th grade history class. I picked up a few ideas to make that lesson even better. The World War II exhibit was just as impressive with the presentation of information and amount of artifacts. I have never really seen the war told from a completely British perspective, and I found the home front section particularly interesting in how similar most aspects of life were in the US and the UK. The interactive Blitz exhibition was a treat, sitting in a bomb shelter as the floors rumble and then walking through a blown-out street in the dark, smelling the charred wood and hearing recollections of what happened to city blocks during the Germans bombardment of London. The exhibitions continued with the topics of the Cold War and major (and some minor) military conflicts since the end of WWII. I learned a whole lot more about the Falkland Wars than I ever did when they were happening (I think I was 11 at the time).
The Museums also features an excellent two-floor exhibit on the Holocaust, similar in presentation and layout (but not in scale) to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. There was a fascinating video on genocide, along with a great computer database on the topic. I tried to find some materials for Hannah in the gift shop, but they didn’t have much on the overall topic. I will have to look online – it was informative and moving.
It was a great opener to the trip, giving me an overall framework of European military encounters, most of which involve the US. If and when I come to London again, I will do all of the London stuff eye, Big Ben, Palace), but I will definitely go back to the Imperial War Museum … and the Churchill War Rooms.

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