Imperial War Museum, London…a little rant

The Imperial War Museum has always been one of my favourite museums in London, with its impressive entrance hall of large pieces of kit that are a feast for the eyes even if you don’t really like planes, tanks or guns.

So as it partially re-opened a couple of weeks ago I set off and was excited to see what’s been going on inside. I was excited walking through the side entrance into what is still partly a building site; there’s no carpets on the stairs yet, lifts were out of order and it felt a bit like going behind the scenes where I shouldn’t really be.

But the excitement stopped there unfortunately. The first room looked at life for a family in the Second World War. Lovely, but haven’t I seen it somewhere before? Yes, every local museum in the UK and probably most of Europe too has exactly the same stuff. An air raid shelter, some 1940s radios and war time posters. It’s World War Two nostalgia at its safest, that thanks to the now ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster is in our faces pretty much every day anyway. I don’t need to go to a major London museum to see this, so I swiftly moved on.

With disappointment firmly taking hold I went on to the Secret War exhibition, this must surely tell me something I’ve not seen before, right? Well, to be fair I wouldn’t know, I watched the introductory video that told me the next rooms would tell me lots of secrets, but when I got into the exhibit and just saw lots of panels of text and small display cases of objects from the Second World War I didn’t hang around. Instead I decided to walk through the three large rooms until something caught my eye, unfortunately this didn’t happen until the very last, small, cramped and hot corridor.

Here at last was something you wouldn’t see anywhere else and exhibited in an interesting way. It looked at the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980 when six armed men stormed the embassy in South Kensington. It explained the background on a large wall panel and then showed news footage from the event with a narrative about what the police and SAS were doing behind the scenes. And to make it a museum piece rather than just an interesting story they had the roughly made wooden models of the embassy used by the SAS to plan their mission.

This was a great insight into a terrible incident and the difficult decisions that had to made – about how the SAS were on stand by but wouldn’t go in unless two hostages were killed. These are the cold, practical decisions that have to be made and it was an interesting insight into the process.

I’m glad the Imperial War Museum isn’t full of gimmicky multi-media exhibits just there to catch your eye rather than tell you anything and that it is still object led rather than movie led or interactive exhibits led, but something a bit more interesting than small text panels and small cases of objects in one of this country’s flagship museums would be welcome.

I am keeping the faith for next year though when the World War One galleries open. This is what they’re really spending their time working on and so hopefully it will be full of interesting insights into the war, displayed in an interesting and easy on the eye way and tell me something about the war I didn’t already know (an idiot’s guide to why it actually started would be nice).

Before I left I made a quick dash upstairs to check the holocaust exhibition was still there. And it is. If there is ever a reason to go to any museum this is it. And if you haven’t been you must go and see it (just skip the rest of the museum for now).


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