By Roy Bassett
London is one of the busiest cities in the world and the noise of the cars, taxi’s, local and tour buses, coaches and the hustle and bustle of the people is never ending. In the middle of all the urban noise is the Imperial War Museum, situated on several acres of pristine parkland, with plenty of trees, bushes and flowers. The museum is housed in a building built in 1815 as the centre portion of the Bethlem Royal Hospital.
It first collected WW1 material starting in 1917 and after being housed in various buildings, the Duke of York officially opened the museum in its present location on July 7, 1936.
It is worth noting the museum was closed during World War 2 and many of the collections were evacuated to buildings outside of London. Most of the exhibits survived the war, although a Short seaplane, which had flown in the battle of Jutland, was shattered in a bombing raid.
During my most recent visit to London in June 2011, my wife and I joined locals and other tourists in the park, used for picnics, playing, lunch breaks or just lazing around enjoying the sunshine. The amazing thing about being in this park is that it is so quiet and peaceful, the traffic noise has abated. Before going into the museum, also spend a few minutes in the Tibetan Peace Garden. The grounds and museum have so much history to absorb, so hopefully this article will act as a guide for anyone planning a trip to London.
When entering the park through the main gates, the 15-inch guns from HMS Resolution and HMS Ramillies seemingly guard the museum building. The stark reality of the guns is subdued by the mass of flowers lining the walkway to the museum. Upon entering the museum through the main gates, you approach the welcome desk to discover there is no admission charge, this being one of only two military museums in the U.K. where admission is free.
As a medals collector, let me say first that the fourth floor houses one of the most amazing collections of medals I have ever seen. The exhibit is named The Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes. There are approximately 200 groups of medals containing the Victoria Cross or the George Cross, being the largest collection of such groups in the world. This new gallery was made possible by a five-million-pound donation from Lord Ashcroft, together with his collection of VCs, loaned or donated to the museum.
Visitors can learn so much about recipients of the medals with interactive touch screens, video, novels and sound clips regarding the life stories and actions of the brave men and women. One of the medals on display is the George Cross awarded to Doreen Ashburham, 11, for fighting off a seven-foot-long cougar that attacked her and her eight-year-old friend, Anthony Farrer, at Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island on Sept. 23, 1916.
While seriously injured, both youngsters survived. The cougar was found, killed and stuffed. Doreen and Anthony received the Albert Medal. In 1971, Doreen received the George Cross in exchange for the Albert Medal.” Doreen was born in England, but moved with her parents to British Columbia as a child. In the years after the widely publicized cougar attack, she moved to the United States, got married and during WW2 was a pilot ferrying aircraft. She died in California in 1991 at 86. The Imperial War Museum purchased Doreen’s George Cross at a British auction in 2000 for $20,000 Canadian.
The George Cross awarded to Anthony is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. He was killed in a 1930 training accident in Manitoba while with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Having served with the 9th Lancers, I also searched the VC groups for one to a 9th Lancer and sure enough, I found the Indian Mutiny and VC group to Robert Newell of the 9th Lancers. He sacrificed his own life to save another in 1858.
Going to the lower ground floor you will find an entire section devoted to World War 1. Some of the exhibits are; War at Sea, The Eastern Front, The War in the Air, The Home Front, Origins and Outbreak of the War, Register of War Deaths and the Western Front. Another section is dedicated to World War 2 with exhibits of The Battle of Britain, Blitzkrieg, Bomber Offensive, The Phony War, War in the Far East, The Home Front and the Middle East. There is also a section on Conflicts since 1945, showing Post War Britain, Peacekeeping, Berlin, The Cold War, Collapse of Communism, The Falklands War, Vietnam, China, Korea, The Gulf War, Suez and Cyprus.
On the third floor, you will find the Holocaust Exhibit, which is not recommended for children under 14. Be prepared to relive one of the most horrific times of the 20th Century, with displays such Euthanasia, the Rise of Hitler, Propaganda and Race Hatred, Antisemitism – the Longest Hatred. This exhibition is continued on the second floor showing exhibits pertaining to Auschwitz, the Camp System, Inside the Camps, Deportation, The Final Solution, Mobile Killing Squads, Ghettos, Destroying Evidence and War Crimes Trials.
When you consider the extent of the collections and information offered by the museum, you will know that I have barely scratched the surface of what to expect when you visit this fantastic museum with one-of-a-kind exhibits. I was impressed by the exhibits and then by the cleanliness and order in the entire building. There were plenty of signs to assist visitors in finding their way to all parts of the museum, with stairs and elevators (lifts) to other floors. As an aside, the museum has 20,000 hours of film covering military and social history from the birth of film to the present day. The photograph archive holds 11 million photographs pertaining to conflicts up to the present day. The sound archive holds over 56,000 hours of interviews and recordings with civilians and service personnel. The exhibits include a variety of weapons, badges, medals, models, uniforms etc, which can also be searched at iwmcollections.org.uk
When visiting the museum, do not hesitate to ask questions. I was fortunate to meet Nigel Steel, who took time out of his busy schedule to spend 20 minutes with me discussing the collection in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery. My wife, Joan, and I spent quite some time with John Harkins learning so much about the artifacts in the museum and we were impressed with his knowledge of history.
The Imperial War Museum is located at Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ. Inquiries: 020 7416 5000 or iwm.org.uk
Photos by Roy Bassett:
1 – Entrance to the musem
2 – Victoria Cross receipient Capt. Hamilton Lyster Reed
3 – Second-floor submarine is an eye-catcher