While in London I found myself with a Saturday to kill, which of course landed me in a museum for several hours. That is not to say that I don’t relish such an opportunity, but with the abundance of museums in London you find yourself spoilt for choice. Thus after much deliberation I stuck out and steeled my nerves to tackle the goliath that is the Imperial War Museum.
It is, broadly speaking. awe inspiring. Walking towards the former Bethlem Royal hospital, you are greeted by two towering obelisks in the form of two 15inch Naval Guns. Coming up the steps and inside you arrive at a balcony overlooking the central floor.
The museum is a monument to death in many ways. The open plan exhibition features great and terrifying machines from a century of war, including a V2 rocket, a spitfire, and the destroyed remnants of a car that had been used in a suicide bomb attack in 2007. They certainly know how to make an entrance. The museum consists of five floors, all of which discuss different themes or times of war. The real standouts from these are the First World War exhibition on the first floor and the Holocaust exhibition on the fourth floor.
The First World War exhibition is really the jewel in their crown, in no small part because there has put so much work into developing it for the centenaries. They force you down a corridor and around the exhibition with a comprehensive narrative of the Great War. It takes you on a journey through enlistment and then into the horrors of modern war.
The exhibition is remarkably well designed with a combination of audio tracks and projector screens adding to the story. There are plenty of points to stop and listen to a more detailed description of the events if you like to take your time. It also has a number of round tables with seating. Each has its own audio track to provide more context to the story. One table is particularly emotive as they read out a number of letters of British soldiers describing the shelling, while on the table sits the melted remains of a British gas mask in a glass jar.
They have not left the Irish out of their narrative. There are a number of propaganda posters littered around the walls appealing for Irish farmers to join the fight. However, the most interesting area from an Irish perspective is their description of the Rising. It is generally quiet tactful, though the tone obviously doesn’t support the actions of the Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army.
It includes a number of documents and personal effects of the leaders of the rising and glosses quickly over their executions and the destruction of Dublin. Perhaps the most concerning thing about it is the reaction of others to it. It is still seen by some in Britain as a betrayal, in fact one gentlemen looking at the panels over my shoulder found it amusing that Connolly had to be tied to a chair to be executed.
As the First World War exhibition goes on it becomes increasing more sombre as the fighting on the front intensifies. By the end you are most likely going to feel incredibly worn by the attrition of unending horror, and that is only the first floor. The exhibition could be done in as little as thirty minutes if you are very selective about what you read, however if you’re a museum enthusiast like myself, you’re looking at easily an hour to an hour and half.
I would discuss the Second World War exhibition in as much detail but it is largely forgettable beyond an intriguing exhibition on “Secret Wars”. It focuses on the history on intelligence organisations including MI5, MI6, and the Special Operations Executive. The third floor hosts a collection of art works related to war and unless that is your particular area of interest you can give it a miss. The top floor contains the Lord Ashcroft Gallery. It is a collection of heroes. It tells the stories of over 250 incredible people, all of whom are recipients of either the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. These men and women are prime examples of the best that humanity has to offer and their stories of derring-do will shock and amaze. A keen eye will see that I skipped the fourth floor, that is because it needs to be discussed in more detail.
The fourth floor is haunting. The Holocaust Exhibition is the best experience of the worst of humanity. It has a sombre tone, starting with the beginnings of the Nazi party and the rise of Anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany. It then descends down the terrible road to the darkest chapter in the twentieth century. There are a series of interviews on screens throughout the exhibition. They are the survivors discussing every element of the holocaust, from the meeting childhood friends in Nazi uniforms to the starvation experienced in the Warsaw ghetto to the horrifying death marches. It is particularly haunting to hear their voices, talking about the deaths of the friends and family. The exhibition does a great deal to make the holocaust real for people.
When we read about the holocaust in schools, they are numbers on the chalkboard. During my school days I met a survivor who had been in Bergen-Belsen, and I found the exhibition brought the memories of that talk flooding back. Even with that experience there were some things that I wasn’t ready for. There are few things as distressing as a wall, twenty feet across and six feet high, made of nothing but shoes. The shoes of the dead. If you enter the holocaust exhibition be prepared to leave it emotionally and physically drained. A thorough visit to the exhibition will last an hour and a half at least but it’s not something that can be rushed. If you go to any of the exhibitions, go to this one because there is nothing like it. I will leave you all with the quote scrawled across the exit of the holocaust exhibition, “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
- Cillian Fearon