The Imperial War Museum, as many of you probably already know, was founded in March 1917 after Sir Alfred Mond MP (the man behind the merger which created ICI) proposed its creation. His idea was to set up a museum to record the events of the ongoing conflict, gathering and displaying items relating to every aspect of it, so that there was a record of the experiences of everyone – civilian and military – and a lasting commemoration of the suffering and sacrifices made. Initially called the National War Museum, it was swiftly renamed the Imperial War Museum and the first steps taken to create a space to fulfil that idea. Over the years, through WWII and beyond, it has evolved to become the family of IWM museums – which illustrate and record all aspects of modern war and of individual’s experiences of it – which we have today.
The first museum was in Crystal Palace and was opened to the public by King George V on 9 June 1920. However the sheer volume of documents, photographs and other items donated by the public (after an appeal from the museum’s trustees) made it necessary for them to find somewhere more permanent and by 1936 it had been moved to the location it still occupies to this day; the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was far better known as Bedlam, on Lambeth Road.
The Imperial War Museum is now considered one of the world’s leading authorities on modern conflict and its impact and has five sites across the UK; the main IWM London at Lambeth, the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster, HMS Belfast in the London docks, IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire and IWM North in Manchester.
The main archives, however, including all the items donated in respect of WWI, remain for the most part in the IWM London. The contents of the archive can be searched online and, if there is something you wish to view for research purposes, any member of the public can make an appointment to do so. I have availed myself of this wealth of information on a number of occasions and cannot stay how much help the diaries and letters have helped build my understanding of various aspects of the war. It is one thing to read books about these experiences, to see extracts and prints online, but quite another to actually hold the letters and diaries in your own hands, see the various stains and dents on the pages, trace the handwriting and note the changes in it.
Last July the IMW London (as it is now known) opened their revamped WWI galleries and I was lucky enough see it in the first few days. I was extremely impressed with how they’d set them up, presenting the details and chosen items in a form that was informative without being overwhelming and offered something for every level of visitor, from a five year old learning about the war for the first time to someone who had made a serious study of the subject. Of course they could not show every item they have (you’d need hundreds of miles of cabinets and about fifty years to view them) but the ones they picked were relevant, meaningful and excellently presented. You can get an idea of what is included in the exhibition here. I have to admit missing the old WWI exhibition slightly but only because it had become like an old friend to me. I must also say that I was sad that the mock-up of a trench at night seems to have been consigned to history, but all in all I think they have made the best of their space and opened up fresh insights to the conflict that the old exhibition simply did not have the space for.
I should also add that the Museum is not just focused on WWI, it covers all wars up to and including the recent Afghanistan conflict – the last time I was there, I spent a good hour in an exhibition focussed solely on the logistics of supplying Camp Bastion and the troops in the forward operating bases across Helmand Province (the area the British were responsible for).
Admission to the IWM London is free, as is entrance to the WWI gallery, and it well worth your time if you have half a day free, and all other information about visiting can be found on their website here.
However the IWM is not just its museums. Or at least it isn’t anymore, because the other thing that the IWM are doing to commemorate the centenary of WWI is the creation of the website Lives of the First World War. The aim of this is to build a permanent digital memorial so complete that every individual (man or woman, soldier, sailor, airman and civilian from across Britain and the Commonwealth) would have a record of their contribution. If this can be done, and it will require contributions from the descendants of those involved across the world to complete it, it will be a wonderful achievement. I’ve signed up and started trying to share information I’ve found. If any of you have the inclination to do the same, I’d strongly encourage you to as this could be fantastic memorial and resource for future generations.