England’s Imperial War Museum

Warbirds remain forever frozen in mid-flight.

My wife and I are in a London underground station with 25 strangers and it is cold and dark.  Above us, we can hear the drone of bombers in the distance, their constant whine occasionally punctuated with violent blasts from bombs dropped.  Suddenly, there is a blast and the walls and bench we are sitting on shake violently as dirt falls from the ceiling and smoke fills the cramped space.  As the dust settles, the city siren blows and a light appears at the end of our tunnel. “All clear!” calls a man with a Cockney accent, and he leads us out into the night.  The acrid smell of burning ruins hangs heavily in the air like fog and forces me to breath shallowly.  In the distance through the ruins, I can see the white dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, silhouetted in the light of a thousand fires.  In the sensory-deprived darkness everything seems bigger and more fragile.   The clanging bells of the unseen fire trucks seem to pass dangerously close, the crumbling brick walls seem to threaten collapse at the slightest movement.  Cautiously we are lead thru the rubble of the city until we emerge into the bright light of a hallway.  Reality check.

This isn’t really 1941 and we are not in the 53rd straight night of bombing during the London Blitz.  We have been in The Blitz Experience Exhibit, one of several compelling, interactive exhibits at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Although I have been to London many times before for work, it was not until I went there with my history major wife, Christine, on an actual vacation that I visited the Museum.  It was long over due.

The Imperial War Museum (known as IWM on the website) is one of the best repositories of information about the world at war from 1903 to the present, but especially rich when it covers WWII.  And this should be no surprise.  Great Britain took the brunt of what the Germans dealt out during the war years and arguably, served as the last best defense for the free world until the Yanks entered the fighting in 1941.  But I think the thing that surprised me most about all the exhibits was the lack of “stiff upper lip-ed-ness.”  All of the exhibits and displays portrayed real people suffering during a brutal attack by hostile forces without the romanticism of propaganda movies and Benny Goodman songs. The exhibits remind us that no man, woman, or child remained untouched by violence of the war.

No exhibit portrays this better than “The Children’s War” exhibit, which looks at the home front through the eyes of the children of England.  This hands on exhibit follows the progression of the war with the evacuation of over 2 million children from war threaten cities into the relative safety of the west country.  It was called at the time “the biggest exodus since Mosses” by the government.  The “Children’s War” exhibit is all the more compelling because it is designed for children as much as for adults.  As you enter the exhibit, you are confronted by a large projection of pictures from the evacuation.  In one photo, a mother kneels in front of her 7-year old son, pinning a label on his lapel as he looks at her confused.  In another, a young girl holds a tiny suitcase in one hand and her even younger bother’s hand in the other.  Opposite the projection, a mother’s sits with her young daughter explaining why.

The museum boasts a vast re-recreation of a WWI trench system.

Deeper into the multi-floored exhibit, in front of a propaganda poster about gas masks, I overhear a boy of about 10 ask his mother “But why did the Germans want to kill the children?”   These are difficult questions for both child and parent.  In age of all-you-can-kill video games and numbing violence everywhere, to be able to provoke these questions from children is the mark of a compelling exhibit.

The story is told through journals, toys and other articles.  There is even a full-scale model of a typical country home.

It is not all gloom and doom.  The resilient attitude of the children is apparent in cheerful letters to home, describing the farm fresh foods, and the excitement of seeing springtime in the country.  One child writes “It’s a wonderful time here…it’s called spring and it happens every year!”

“The Children’s War” runs thru October 2011 at The Imperial War Museum, London.

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