In 1945, after WWII had ended, those working in the underground bunker beneath Whitehall put down their pens and cigarettes, vacated their offices and got on with the rest of their lives.
Some 30 years later this bunker where Winston Churchill directed the war effort was earmarked to be opened up for full public display and the Imperial War Museum began to explore. What you see today are many of the rooms with the original furniture, as well as some recreated at a later date. There are also stories on display about people who worked in the bunker and many objects from the time, with one of my favourites being three sugar cubes you can see in the map room that were diligently hidden in an envelope in a drawer and found in the same place when the drawer was reopened decades later.
But this is no in depth socio-historical exploration of the period or the war, rather it simply explains the rooms (including Churchill’s bedroom, the Transatlantic Phone Room and the Cabinet Room), points out things of interest and then on to the next. The audio guides allow you to go round the exhibition at a decent pace without overloading you with too much information, but don’t allow much scope for your own exploration and its very much a one way procession to the exit.
However, there is a break in the middle to explore the Churchill Museum, which takes you through Churchill’s life story. In a fairly simple manner without much information overload the museum explains Churchill’s upbringing, his army career, his escape from captivity in the Boer War and the ups and downs of his political career including the disastrous 1915 campaign in Gallipoli. The museum doesn’t stick to a chronological account, instead it begins with WWII, moves to the post war era and Churchill’s death, followed by his birth, early career and how he finally became Prime Minister. This neatly takes you back to WWII and it is in this context that you re-enter the Cabinet War Rooms knowing a great deal more about the main man.
In many ways though its strength is also its main weakness – its an easy museum to get round, it doesn’t really challenge you in any way and doesn’t overload you with information, so its very enjoyable. But considering that not much that happened in the bunker would have been easy, something more challenging would also have felt a lot more rewarding, or at least having the option to delve deeper if you had time would be welcome. But I liked it, I enjoyed it and I learnt a few things. Job done.
Churchill War Rooms
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AQ
£17 for an adult (look out for 2for1 offers!)