5 Unmissable Objects at the Imperial War Museum
It’s a tough job, curating a museum all about death and destruction. So how does the Imperial War Museum tackle it?
Having visited a fair few times before, I was thrilled to get a chance to join a tour with one of their in-house guides. Dan shared some of his highlights, then I’ve narrowed down the list to my top 5.
First up though, a bit of background. Why do we have the Imperial War Museum?
Imperial War Museum
Founded in 1917, the idea was a direct result of the Battle of the Somme. It was the largest we had ever fought, with 131,000 British lives lost.
There was a collective feeling of the need to commemorate and remember this battle and the ongoing First World War. From its beginning then the Imperial War Museum was never – as some might wrongly assume – about glorifying war. But rather analysing the cause, course and consequences of conflicts.
The image below is the main atrium of the museum, a huge space redesigned in 2014 to commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War.
But look a bit closer and something seems surprising. Why are there brick walls and windows overlooking an inside space?
The building itself has a very interesting bit of history to tell…
The museum only arrived in this space in 1936. Before then this large building housed ‘Bedlam’ the nickname for Bethlehem Hospital, a psychiatric institution with its own history going back to 1247(!) Find out more by clicking the post below.
Returning to the bricks and windows then, this was previously an open courtyard for patients. A poignant fact is that a lot of soldiers, relatives and civilians who fought in the World Wars, were also treated here when suffering from PTSD.
It seems fitting then to start with an object from the First World War;
1. 13-pounder Néry Gun
This gun served in the 1914, but it only lasted a week. It was used by L Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery. Or course, this was a time when soldiers relied on horse power in battle.
Néry is a town in Northern France, a place where 200 soldiers had spent days marching towards, feeling that they had a safe distance between themselves and German forces. However on 1 September at 5.30am, they suddenly awoke to shell fire. The Germans had 12 guns. Britain had 3 which quickly fell to just one, this one, over the next few hours.
44 men, one quarter of of L Battery’s troops were killed in this battle. Three of the most senior; Captain Bradbury, Sergeant Nelson and Sergeant Dorrell were awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery. Bradbury received his posthumously, his last moments came while lying against this gun.
In a sense then, this object has become a memorial to everyone who lost their lives in the First World War, its own battle wounds still clearly visible.
2. Baghdad Car
Without the label, it was hard to guess the original function of this object from its mangled remains.
On 5 March 2007, this car was destroyed in a suicide blast within an historic book market in Baghdad, Iraq.
This wasn’t the car containing the bomb, yet it’s disfigured almost beyond recognition.
38 civilians died. And seeing the damage done to metal, it’s heartbreaking to think of the fragility of the human body in comparison. It’s a stark reminder that in our modern world it’s civilians, not soldiers, who are often targets of war.
3. T-34 Tank
With a total of 80,000 produced during and after World War Two, the T-34 was the most popular tank, becoming an icon of the Soviet Union. But, as with most weapons of war, it means very different things to different people.
Part of operation Barbarossa – a plan to move production of these tanks East and out of the Luftwaffe’s range – for Russia these tanks are heroic. An item to stand proudly beside for a photo. Show a Czech visitor though and they may recoil in horror, the tanks conjuring images of oppression.
Viewed without a political lens, it’s interesting to appreciate the details which made it a successful design;
Tracks remind you of anything? They were based on a wristwatch. A simple pin holding separate pieces together. This meant most soldiers could replace the part, you didn’t have to rely on an engineer performing a complicated task.
Another simple addition was this wooden pole;
A rudimentary but very effective way of saving tanks from getting stuck in the mud.
4. Lancaster Fuselage
The most important British bomber in the Second World War, it’s hard to believe this behemoth could fly. But this one certainly did, completing 49 missions as can be seen by teh RAF circles painted onto its side.
It also takes a bit of imaging the horrendous conditions on board. An unpressurised bubble in -30 degrees wind. The death rate for a pilot was 47%. Anyone aged over 25 was nicknamed ‘Grandad’. So while acknowledging their bravery, how do we also reconcile that each of these planes could drop 10,000 kg of bombs across Germany? That’s the key to the Imperial War Museum. It aims to present us with facts and context from both sides.
5. Desert Hawk III Drone
With a 360° camera fitted on board, this drone was tacked with surveillance mission across Afghanistan. Able to film in day and night mode it’s virtually undetectable. For me it symbolised the huge shift in modern warfare that we’ve seen in the last 50 years.
This is just a tiny selection of the stories that this museum contains. The museum is free to visit and you can find out more details here.