When you first arrive in London there is a mental tick list of famous museums that you are vaguely aware of. The V&A, the Natural History Museum & the Tate are all on there, and given the right rainy day and lack of hangover there is a chance you might even visit. The one that isn’t often on the vague list (but should be in the top 5) is the Imperial War Museum.
I know, why go to a museum all about war? I was first introduced to the IWM about seven years ago (man that makes me feel old) when they had a special propaganda art exhibition. It was amazing, a collection of World War 2 propaganda posters from all competing sides; America, Russia, Germany, France, Japan and the UK all in one room. What was crazy about it is that all the posters had pretty much the same messages; don’t tell secrets, together we will win, look how strong we are, scrimp and save for the boys on the front. So what you actually saw was the design differences between the cultures. The Soviet posters were minimalist and focussed more on grand declarations showing military might, the UK were all about calmly sticking together and tried to go for gentle humour to get the message across, and America…well their propaganda hasn’t changed in the last 70 years.
That is what the Imperial War Museum does so well. They use war as a way to show human creativity and endurance. If you think about it, many of the big human achievements grew out of the pressure of war. Not just weapons or tactics but anything that was created in the pressure cooker of reduced resources (both people and goods). War also clarified national identities; I think the UK would be a vastly different place if those six years of WW2 had not happened.
Maybe thats why I find this museum so important. When you arrive in the UK in part you try to understand what makes this country tick, the Imperial War Museum cuts to the heart of it.
Every time I walk in I feel like I am walking into a church, huge ceilings filled with Spitfires and other classic designs. Its once you have walked into the smaller galleries that you get to see the stories behind the wars. Ok this is going to sound a bit oxymoronic, but they have one of the best Holocaust exhibitions I have ever seen. The lights are kept dark and the text small which means you have to get really up close to the exhibits in order to read them. There are obstacles in your way and dark corners to find, you leave feeling sad and upset.
This museum is brilliant at displaying humanity at its best and worst. Do yourself a favour and put it on your must visit list.