Imperial War Museum at last

One of the places I wanted to see from my bucket list is the Imperial War Museum. The irony is that when I lived in Kennington the IWM was just up the street but it was closed. All I could do was stand outside that magnificent building and grumble and mutter and take pics of those magnificent guns that stand outside it.

The building itself is an interesting one too as it was the site of the former Bethlehem Royal Hospital known as Bedlam. It is a magnificent building too, but there is very little visible that could connect it to it’s former role.  

The crowds heading in the direction of the museum was not a good sign, and the 6 coaches parked outside did not auger well either. Once past the doors my biggest fears were justified when I realised the place was packed. I had been given a 2.30 slot of the World War 1 galleries, but seeing as it was already just after 12.00 I did not think I would be able to find enough to keep me amused for 2,5 hours. The crowds made it very difficult to get anywhere close to anything. 

As you enter you are confronted with the central courtyard as above, my eye was drawn to the Spitfire MK1 almost immediately. She just looked amazing, and I was determined to get as many other shots of her as I could. The World War 1 Galleries were housed on the ground floor but I was not scheduled to visit those till 2.30 so headed up the stairs. It was even more crowded here and extremely difficult to look at anything. 


I was very curious about the the blue nosed object sticking out over the landing and it turned out to be an Italian Human Torpedo, and it was fantastic. Having an open cockpit you could see the complicated controls used to operate the vehicle, and again I was left thinking about how difficult it must have been to operate one of these under wartime conditions.  

Next to the chariot was a pile of wreckage, and I was puzzled because I could not find a information card that said what it was. I eventually found out that this is part of the wreckage of the midget submarine X7 that was lost on the mission to sink the Tirpitz. I had seen the intact X24 during my visit last month to the Submarine Museum at Gosport, and this was an interesting link between the two vessels.  One of the more endearing images I have of the IWM is the piece of a Lancaster that the museum had. I recall watching the TV series The World At Warand one of the interviews was held with that Lanc fuselage behind the interviewee. That Lanc relic rested very close to this spot. Unfortunately, getting a semi-decent image of it was impossible. 

That aircraft was the one thing that I had on my list for the museum, everything else was really just a bonus. It is however one of those items where the interesting bits is out of reach, a platform level with the cockpit would have made this so much nicer to view, but in itself it is an awesome relic. There were other items here that were interesting, but the crowds made it very difficult to actually see anything, naturally the selfie brigade was out, as were the seemingly stalled people who stood and never moved. This museum is one to savour, not one that you need to struggle with.  I headed upwards, to another level, and then another, slowly being defeated by hordes of people and vaguely hoping that I would find a toilet and quickly. The really quiet areas were the portrait galleries, and they had some magnificent works in them, but photography wasn’t allowed so I cannot boast about what I saw. At each landing I stopped and looked at that Spitfire and Harrier, looking for an all encompassing shot.

I went into the Holocaust exhibition, and it was really excellent, telling the a comprehensive story as opposed to a hodge podge of bits and pieces, there were a lot of personal items on display, and a lot of video displays expanded on the overall story within. The audience was very muted in here, and it was a very effective display. On the whole though a lot of what I saw was not really in my field of interest, as it dealt with the Korean conflict and the Gulf conflict, there was also emphasis placed on Britain and how it came through the war and the period afterwards.  It is a lot of information that has to be moved through, and I do wonder whether they are trying to cover too many bases in too small a space. 

I had covered the museum in an hour, and to be honest was not going to hang around for another 90 minutes for the WW1 galleries, although they are pretty much the most important part of the museum at this point in time. I had a train to catch and headed out the door.

I will be brutally honest and say that it did not meet my expectations. There were a lot fewer tangible items on display, and some items were really minor things that did not have much of a focal point. The crowds were terrible and I expect that was because it was school holidays and a Saturday, and of course the museum had been closed for so long. I do admit that there were a lot of research stations and stuff that I probably did not even get close to; I prefer seeing items as opposed to images, and there was really a shortage of those. I probably need to go back one day when it is quieter and take my time over the museum, but that won’t happen for awhile. The bookshop had some interesting titles, but quite a lot were not price marked and the shop itself was laid out badly. I expected to walk out there with heaps of books, I came out with a museum guide and that’s all.

The most popular parts of the museum are really the areas devoted to the two World Wars, and that’s where the huge crowds were. The other areas did not attract as much attention, the portrait galleries were really very quiet, although the Holocaust display was packed.  Maybe one day when it is quieter? I don’t know but I felt let down by the whole experience and my that the expectations exceeded the reality. Maybe it is because I have been to other museums that just seemed so much better. Highlights were definitely that Lancaster and the Spitfire, the rest were just so-so. The War Museum in Johannesburg was infinitely better from the perspective of exhibits. 

*Update June 2016.*

I revisited the Museum in early June 2016 and my impressions as before still stand. I did get to see the Jack Cornwell gun which is what I was after, as well as the Ashcroft and WW1 galleries, and they did add a lot to the experience. But, I still came away unimpressed. I cannot put a finger on why though, but I suspect it has to do with the lack of tangible exhibits. 

November 2021:  Unfortunately the museum has also been a target of the “woke” brigade with a “woke Remembrance Day” performance by a rap artist that made jabs at Winston Churchill. The audience was not amused and the museum has had to apologise. It does appear that this institution has become yet another that has been targeted for its seemingly colonial background. 

Random images.


DRW ©  2014-2022. Images recreated 19/04/2016. 9 more images added from 2016 trip 26/06/2016

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