At the height of the First World War, Sir Alfred Mond MP, suggested to the then prime minister Lloyd George that a national war museum should be established. The war cabinet agreed. Mond travelled to the Western Front to study the best way to organise a collection based on war. And after a request from the colonies, it was decided in December 1917 to change the name to the Imperial War Museum.
The museum’s first appointed director, Sir Martin Conway, wanted the exhibits to be vitalised by contributions expressive of the action, the experiences, the valour and endurance of individuals. At the time of this statement, Britain’s perceived successes in war were perhaps edging towards glorifying it.
The museum opened in 1920, moved locations a couple of times before settling south of the River Thames in Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam as it was known, London’s Medieval madhouse. Can’t help thinking this is a suitable place for a war museum – war is the ultimate madness of human failings.
These days the Imperial War Museum isn’t one museum, but several. We’ve already visited Duxford and the Churchill War Rooms; there is also the HMS Belfast, a naval frigate permanently moored on the River Thames, and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. In 2011 the ‘Imperial’ was brushed over with a rebranding to simply IWM, and a new logo.
War isn’t an easy topic for a museum. It has to display more than objects, it has to deliver an exhibit that exemplifies what was actually experienced, so for example, the IWM London offers the sensory Blitz Experience and WWI Trench Experience, and it is also part of the experience that you are told stories of real people. There are the usual displays too. You see uniforms, medals, souvenirs and mementoes. There are weapons, of course, and military vehicles and some aircraft, although Duxford is the place to go for the best collection.
New objects have been added as new conflicts are fought and atrocities continue: a piece of twisted metal from one of destroyed Twin Towers; the dock from the Lockerbie bombing trial; and a small section of the Berlin war – reminders that not all wars are about soldiers.
And perhaps because modern warfare is so devastating on civilians, a more balanced picture is given than what Mont intended. The Holocaust has a gallery, and there are the stories of conscientious objectors (Manchester IWM).
Stories, quotes and photographs, the oral transcripts; thousands of items archived in a reference library for which IWM is responsible. The ability to search these collections online is now very much a part of museums. What was once a physical image collection stored on shelves that needed space and accompanying archival records, are now increasingly digitised, bringing objects to your computer and phones, These days it is much easier to research objects and their history without visiting an actual museum or associated archive. This is great, but it also means that the personal experience is lost, the very thing the IWM tries to recreate in its exhibits.
It is perhaps then not surprising that war museums with the most personal touch for some visitors are not the national ones but the regimental museums attached to places of historical interest; a castle, or barracks. There are 62 regimental and military museums in England. Each one tells of individual battles fought over the centuries, the cost of lives, the courage and pride of the regiment, and importantly, the legacy of the army life continuing on into the modern era.
War museums stir up strange emotions, one of regret at mankind’s inability to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence, but also immense respect to those who make sacrifices to protect the lives of others. More than any other kind of museums, war museums are memorials and narrators of history, and to some extent the original goal of the IWM has been met. As of 2012, the Museum’s goal is to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience‘. A modern take on Conway’s version.