Tourist Stuff: The Imperial War Museum (and thoughts on remembrance)

Monday, November 7, 2011

It was only when I arrived at the Imperial War Museum that I realized what an appropriate choice it was for this time of year, considering Remembrance Day is just around the corner.  That, coupled with the fact that the museum is a short bus ride from Brixton, and, like many of London’s great museums, is free to enter, meant it turned out to be a perfect choice for a grey Sunday afternoon.

Hippie Pam
Me outside the museum, standing next to a 15” shell (inactive, I hope). (And check out that hair! I’m a freakin’ hippie!)
Oddly, they do not have remembrance ceremonies on Nov. 11th here unless the 11th happens to be a Sunday.  Instead, “Remembrance Sunday” occurs on the second Sunday of November.  However, ceremonies of remembrance here are much that same as those in Canada, usually centred around local war memorials or cenotaphs.  The official national ceremony is held at the Cenotaph on Whitehall, at 11:00am on Remembrance Sunday.  Wreaths are laid at the cenotaph by a lot of important people including the Queen, five princes (Philip, Charles, Edward, Andrew and William), one princess (Anne) and loads of politicians and military officials.  A field gun on Horse Guards Parade is fired at the beginning and end of two minutes of silence, and Royal Marine buglers sound “The Last Post”.
Whitehall Cenotaph
The Cenotaph.  If it looks familiar, that’s because the design was copied and adapted for war memorials all over the Commonwealth.  (And did you know that the word “cenotaph” derives from the Greek “kenos” meaning empty and “taphos” meaning tomb?  Shut up, you did not.)
Like at home, poppies are worn at this time of year, and are sold all over as a fundraiser for the Royal British Legion.  However, poppies are different here!  They’re just as prevalent, but the design is not at all the same as at home.  They’re made of paper so they’re not fuzzy, and they’re shaped differently, and have a little green paper leafy bit, and a big black plastic bit in the middle.  The stem is green plastic and meant to be threaded into a buttonhole, with pins provided as an optional extra for those poor souls whose lapels  lack an appropriate orifice.  Handily, the green plastic stem has a little upwards pointing barb on it that helps stop it from sliding out from behind the pin.  This means your average UK poppy stays put better than the Canadian variety, but overall I’d say the British poppy is inferior to the Canadian version, which is pleasingly fuzzy and definitely sturdier, being made out of plastic instead of paper.
Head-to-head comparison of poppies, English paper version on the left, fuzzy Canadian one on the right. (The Canadian one is so sturdy that it’s actually last year’s version, which I picked up at the Maple Leaf pub at an ex-pats get together in November of 2010.)
But back to the museum:
The Imperial War Museum, London.  (Interesting aside: The museum is housed in the building that was previously the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark.  It was the first hospital devoted to psychiatric patients but for a long time conditions were so dreadful and the patients so out of control that the general level of uproar and confusion that reigned meant the hospital’s name became synonymous with that state.  Hence the term “bedlam”.)  
The building pictured above is one of five venues of the Imperial War Museum.  In addition to the Bedlam building they also maintain the Churchill War Rooms and the HMS Belfast in London, an aviation museum in Cambridgeshire and another purpose-built museum in Manchester.  Yet even though I was only tackling one of those spots, I knew the collection would be far too extensive to see in one visit.  Once again, I’m grateful to be living here because unlike when I was traveling I knew I could come back any time and dip in to the collection.  I also meant I didn’t feel the slightest hesitation in pausing during my visit for a nice latté and a scone with whipped cream and jam in the museum café.  If there’s anything I learned in my spell as a full time tourist it’s that taking a moment to rest and refuel can make the difference between a pleasant afternoon and a grueling ordeal.

So… what did I actually see at the museum?  I focused on two main areas – one that’s part of the permanent collection and one temporary exhibit.  The Children’s War and 1940s House is a temporary installation looking at the experience of children during the Second World War and at the home front in general.  It concentrated a lot on the evacuation of children from the cities to the countryside, which was undertaken because it was believed that major centres would be targets for German bombing.  More than 800,000 children were relocated during the war, many of whom had been raised in poverty in London’s poorest districts and who had never seen the countryside.
Poster about the evacuation
There were lots of touching excerpts from letters written by children to their parents back home, like this one:  
“They call this spring, Mum, and they have one down here every year.” - letter from evacuated child, 1940
Some kids apparently had a quite jolly time - there were heart-warming tales of frolicking in verdant meadows, swimming in ponds, chasing frogs, and being properly fed - with fruits and vegetables!  (One 6-year old girl was noted for having requested beer and cheese for breakfast... maybe I should try that some time.)  Many gained weight and ended up much healthier than when they were in the city, and some formed lifelong bonds with the families that fostered them.  Of course there were also tales of children sent to unfriendly, cold, nasty places straight out of Edward Gorey.  Following on from the stories of the evacuation there was a nice recreation of a wartime house, and lots of stuff about rationing and other home front topics which were pleasingly diverting.

After that I skipped into the WWI section, which was also quite good, and extensive, and included a walk-through recreation of a section of trenches called, inevitably, the Trench Experience.  Despite this annoying name the exhibit was quite good - dark and moody, with lots of interesting audio loops playing as you walked past the different areas.

An officer in the Trench Experience, looking like he's ordering a pizza. ("And no anchovies this time, dammit!")
And what didn't I see?  I skipped rather quickly through the main entrance hall which is full of tanks, submarines, guns and planes, and I missed most of the exhibit on World War II, and the bit on conflicts since 1945, and the galleries of both WWI and WWII artwork, and about six special exhibitions.  I also made a very conscious decision to skip the Holocaust exhibit, thinking it might not be the cheeriest thing to dive into on a cloudy, chilly November day.  But that all just means there's plenty to go back for.

The Hall O' Tanks
I also have to mention to the Imperial War Museum's audioguide because it was a type I've never encountered before, and I consider myself something of an expert on the whole subject of audioguides.  Unlike any previous examples, this one actually had a colour touch screen and showed pictures to accompany the commentary - very swish!  And at a mere £3.50 it seemed a good value, despite the fact that the first one I got crapped out at the beginning of World War I and I had to trek back to the reception desk for a replacement.  The museum also has a nice gift shop where I was tempted by many Marmite-themed products including a whole set of AndyWarhol style coffee mugs and a couple of cookbooks.  (Though I was at a loss to understand what Marmite has to do with war...)

And there you have it - another site worthy of your attention for the next day you find yourself at loose ends in Lambeth.  And another site I certainly wouldn't have visited yesterday if I hadn't felt obliged to bash out another thousand words for the three of you who are actually reading this.  If nothing else, at least the blog is  forcing me to get out of the house on a regular basis, which means I can feel quite smug in the office on Monday morning when everyone else has to admit they spent the whole weekend eating Indian takeaway and watching re-runs of "The X-Factor".  And as an added bonus it also means I (and you!) can annoy co-workers with pointless trivia like the origin of the word "bedlam" or Victorian surgical practices, or the reproductive practices of certain palm trees.  There's no need to thank me...


Laura C said...

But really, thank you. And 3...hah! I doubt that. In my house alone there are 4 followers!

Colleen said...

Make that at least 7 or 8 since I routinely read and enjoy your posts. I also tend to recount or paraphrase them in conversations with friends and so that should count for another couple, right? Glad to hear you are pacing yourself to take in the various sites/displays while not wearing yourself out which has the added benefit of leading to more posts! Cheers from snowy, cool (-5), but sunny Sask. ck

Dyanne, the TravelnLass said...

I know, I know, old news here. But just wanted to pop in to say thanks for the tip on the Rising Dragon Hotel 1 in Hanoi (from your old GSRED blog) - the staff there (and esp. "David" are fantastic!) I booked a 3 day/2 nt. Halong Bay tour (aboard the "Opera") and it too was excellent.

After a wondrous 3 nts. in Sapa, am now settled into my new (permanent, leastwise for a month) digs here in Saigon. In short - I'm LOVIN' Vietnam!

eme said...

Still enjoying your blog, even if you are staying in one place for now ;)

Then again, I love London in general so that it most likely why.

Anonymous said...

Hippie Pam looks hip!

Unknown said...

YOU SKIPPED THE "tanks, submarines, guns and planes" ??!!??!!

Oh, Man, this is going in My Report!

The hair looks good. Keep it growing. Your hairs are your antennas (have you seen Withnail & I?).

Sorry about BC creaming Winnipeg in the Grey Cup today. It had to be done - we spent half a Billion on the stadium's new roof, and could not afford to have another riot.

I will send hair scrunchies...


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