I remember being blown away with the entrance hall of the Imperial War Museum as a child, and I can say now that it is still just as impressive. The ground floor contains an awe-inspiring collection of tanks, giant V2 rockets and submarine guns, while a Spitfire and other war planes are suspended from the ceiling.
This museum offers an enormous wealth of information both historical and current, and definitely requires careful time planning to make the most of a trip. Currently, the entrance hall also contains the exhibition War Story Afghanistan, which captures the day-to-day life of soldiers. Build the Truce is also on the ground floor, provoking discussion over the peace and conflict resolutions in countries such as Northern Ireland and Kosovo.
A Family in Wartime is another social history exhibition, which focuses on the details of life of the Allpress family who lived in Lambeth. The displays include reproductions of domestic rooms, paraphernalia of the time and an Anderson shelter you can sit in.
Moving down to the lower ground floor, you are led into a labyrinth of display cabinets divided between the wars before and after 1945. The displays are packed and vast, and I would therefore strongly recommend planning an area of interest so that you can go away having learnt something, rather than leaving with a blurred memory of army uniforms and black and white photographs.
Very popular with families is the Trenches Experience, where you can gain an understanding of the physical scale and smell of the trenches. However, I wouldn’t recommend the Blitz Experience for anyone with very young children, as you are plunged into darkness and surrounded by loud special effects and voices.
The first floor is home to more weapons of the wars, including the original Néry gun - which I learnt about during one of the free talks which run throughout the day. You will also be able to hear James Bond’s music on the first floor coming from the Secret War display which features the transceivers and cryptography of M15 and MI6.
Survival at Sea, also on the first floor, focuses on the often-overlooked role of the navy, bringing to light the troubles of dealing with enemy submarines and the rough weather of the sea. This floor also houses the museum’s History Centre, a welcoming open space where you can research exhibitions and trace army ancestry. You can also book appointments to gain access to the collections.
The biggest display on the second floor is the Art Galleries, which hold a fantastic collection of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and John Singer Sargent paintings. In addition, the rooms include contemporary artists such as Albert Adam’s painful responses to Iraq detainee’s treatment in Gharib. The floor also includes The People’s War, a unique collection of portraits of people affected by the Second World War with commentary from the V&A and the National Gallery. Crimes against Humanity - a more intense and disturbing picture of the war - is also in this section.
The third floor is the site of the Holocaust Exhibition, which is a touching journey showing the rising persecution of the Jews and details of the concentration camps. The exhibition ends with a film of interviews from survivors. It presents the facts, but there is also a sense of reflection in the curation with more space than the other exhibitions and seats throughout - when I left the exhibition many were wiping tears from their eyes.
Around the balcony of the fourth floor there are large digital prints of soldiers serving today. Photographed on white backgrounds, indiscriminate of rank, the photos offer a refreshing and moving display of soldiers as people. Extraordinary Heroes, also housed on the fourth floor in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, tells the stories of war heroes and displays an expansive collection of Victoria and George crosses.
The Tibetan Peace Garden in the museum’s grounds is the best end point for the day, where you can reflect on the engraved words of the Dalai Lama: “It is in the interest of all of us on this planet that we make a joint effort to turn the next century into an era of peace and harmony”.
Overall, the museum offers a thought-provoking and intense historical day out. There is plenty for children to learn about and enjoy, with submarines to climb into and trenches to explore. For those of you who haven’t been since your school trip, I would also recommend revisiting to see the coverage of recent conflicts and revisit the detailed displays. To avoid an information overload, however, I would plan what you want to see beforehand!