The Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road is among the many London museums without an admission fee. Visitors can, if they wish, make a monetary donation in lieu of a ticket. The Imperial War Museum has five different locations: London, Manchester, Cambridgeshire, the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast. I went to the London one.
The museum was founded in 1917 to record the events taking place in the Great War but King George V officially opened it in 1920 in Crystal Palace. In 1936, the Duke of York reopened the museum in its present home on Lambeth Road, South London, in what used to be the Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’. I don’t know whether this was done of purpose but the name of the former hospital is just perfect to describe the reality of war. The imposing building sits in the middle of beautiful, and ironically, peaceful park and gardens.
The Imperial War Museum covers armed conflicts from World War I to this day, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The biggest exhibitions are those devoted to the two world wars. The First World War Galleries are divided in the fighting fronts and the life at home. Visitors can see what life in the trenches was like minus the mud and cold, of course. The sound effects recreate planes swooping by and dropping bombs.
Every object tells a story but the object that caught my attention was the white feather and accompanying letter sent anonymously to those who didn’t join the Army. The white feather was a symbol of cowardice.
The Second World War exhibition is equally interesting and moving. The exhibits include anything from a German V1 flying bomb to the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber aircraft to different types of bomb shelters to maps with Rommel’s handwriting. A special section describes how the British people lived the war at home, from the German airstrikes to rationing to supporting the troops.
My country, Argentina, was at war with Britain in 1982 over a group of islands in the South Atlantic. We call them Malvinas, they call them Falklands. The history is long and convoluted but, in a nutshell, the then de facto president of Argentina decided to get the islands back through invasion. It’s a painful chapter in our history. There is a section of the museum devoted to this war. It made me extremely sad to see objects like a three-fold metal operating table captured from the Argentinean army or a French-made Exocet missile, a name I heard frequently because that’s what Argentinean bomber planes carried. To see one with my own eyes brought back memories of that time. I was 10 and living in Buenos Aires but followed the developments as best I could.
However, the exhibition that brought tears to my eyes and an overwhelming sadness was that of the Holocaust. I hesitated to go in but I felt compelled to do so. I saw the first half of the exhibition: the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist party and the events leading up to the Final Solution, as that inhuman being called it, but I simply could not go on. I dissolved into tears and left. I, unlike the prisoners, knew what was coming and couldn’t face it.
A lunch in the museum’s cafeteria’s terrace did wonders to offset so much gloom and doom. Life goes on, the sun shines through the darkest clouds.
10am - 6pm every day
IWM London Lambeth Road London SE1 6HZ