Most tourists, foreign or domestic, are unlikely to venture south of the Thames to visit the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. There is little else nearby, and the area is not that attractive. However, I would urge you to make this trip, as I can guarantee that it will be worthwhile. A short walk from Waterloo Station, or accessed from the underground stations at Lambeth North, or Elephant and Castle, the imposing building is easy to find, and well sign-posted too.
With the centenary of WW1 fast approaching, the museum has recently undergone a massive facelift, and there has been a lot of coverage on TV about the new exhibits, not least a special exhibition about the Great War. From the time you see the huge naval guns outside the main entrance, to your first walk into the grand atrium, with its suspended aircraft, and displays of tanks, rockets, and field guns, you will soon realise that you have found somewhere very special. And what’s more, it’s free!
As well as the famous static displays of military equipment, weapons, uniforms, and paintings, the museum is now completely up to date, with interactive displays, computer generated graphics, and extensive use of new technology. There is a haunting Holocaust exhibition, which alone is worth the visit, as well as extensive displays of photographs, fascinating artifacts, and personal memorabilia. This is not a place that seeks to glorify war, but a reminder of the devastation it brings, and the effects it has on society and individuals alike. To be able to see objects only imagined, or previously seen in films or on TV, has a profound affect on the viewer. I have a close personal association with this building, and it played an important part in my youth.
After its foundation in 1920, the museum had two homes, before finally settling into the current building, in 1936. This had been the former home of The Bethlem Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had moved to this site from the City of London, in 1815. Despite some demolition, the remaining parts were well-suited for use as a museum, and the Imperial War Museum was able to move there, from its previous premises in Kensington. The museum was affected by the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, when some exhibits were actually removed, to be used by the armed forces during that war. As a result, the museum closed, re-opening fully in 1949, with new galleries, and a restored collection. So, by the time I was born, it was still seen as a relatively new museum, and it was very popular, especially with the local people. By coincidence, I was born a stone’s throw from the site, in the former Lambeth Hospital, long since closed down.
My first experience of this museum was on a school trip. Herded around in a well-behaved group, we had to look at what we were told, and other than the larger exhibits, I don’t remember a great deal about that visit. Once I was old enough to venture out on my own, in 1960, I was soon able to find my way there, by a short bus trip from home. When I got a good cycle soon after, I could ride up there anytime I desired, and made frequent trips, usually alone. Now I had as much time to spend as I wanted, I could wander the galleries for hours, staring at the contents of the numerous glass-fronted cases. There was every type of rifle, pistol, and machine-gun to examine in detail. Their names and types were listed on small cards, and I got to know them all intimately. There was even a rifle with a bent barrel, and a periscope mounted on the top. This ingenious device had been invented to fire around corners, allowing the user to remain safely concealed.
I also became interested in the numerous paintings, many depicting events during WW1. They hung on the stairs, on landings, and in dedicated galleries. As well as commemorating the two world wars, there were also memories of the past. Zulu war shields, Indian knives with curved blades, and examples of the weapons that we used against these native adversaries. They had also decided to keep up to date with more recent conflicts, and featured items from the Korean War, as well as the many colonial wars that Britain was engaged in at the time. I recall being fascinated by one cabinet that displayed different sized bullets and cartridges. I was amazed how large many of them were, and tried to imagine what it must have been like, if one of them struck your body. Similarly with bayonets; gazing at rows of these terrible weapons, some with jagged teeth, finding it incomprehensible that they were once plunged into soft bellies. Displays of uniforms made me realise that men were significantly smaller in the past, at least those that had to go and fight. Medals from long-forgotten campaigns gave testament to past bravery, cleaned and polished in long rows, with their colourful ribbons beside them.
There were later school trips. Older now, we were taken to see the films of Leni Riefenstahl, ‘Triumph of the Will’, and ‘Olympia’. These Nazi propaganda films are well-known today, but to us at the time, the imagery was overwhelming. The teacher was trying to make us aware of the power of film to change minds, and persuade people. He succeeded. Once I left school and started work, I had no time for more trips to Lambeth. Over the years, I moved around, and it was always inconvenient, or too far to travel, to visit the museum I loved. In 1986, I found myself living once again in Rotherhithe, after an absence of nearly twenty years. I went back to Greenwich, and revisited the places of my youth, on the now regenerated riverside.
Eventually, I found my way back to my favourite museum, making a special trip to see the Holocaust Exhibition when it opened. It was much as I remembered it. The aircraft still suspended, the rockets looking intimidating; the artillery and tanks might have seemed a little smaller, but no less interesting. The museum had expanded. It had taken over the old airfield at Duxford, and built a marvellous aircraft museum there. It had also refurbished HMS Belfast, providing a floating museum of great distinction, right next to Tower Bridge. They later opened a branch in the north of England, near Manchester. Despite modernising the whole experience, and making it an attractive proposition for the i-pad generation, I can still remember the first time I went there alone, and the impact the place had on me. It left me wanting to know more, and with a respect for history, and war, that has stayed with me ever since. Here are some links for you to follow. I hope you decide to go there one day. With the new exhibition about the Great War, there has never been a better time.