Tag Archives: Imperial War Museum

First World War in London

Britain declared war on Germany 100 years ago today on 4th August, 1914, and to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I was asked to write a piece for Metropolitan magazine looking at some of the most remarkable items from the refurbished Imperial War Museum.


The selection includes items as varied as a mounted German pig’s head and Edith Cavell’s nurse cap. One thing I like about the IWM is that it is very good at driving home individual stories amid the context of immense global suffering and complex geopolitics, meaning you can find numerous, remarkably touching, small personal items in its collections, such as this postcard written on a piece of wood from the Western Front.

Picture 4172

One of the favourite items I came across – or rather, which the incredibly helpful press team at the museum pointed me towards – was this decorated tin, painted by a disabled Belgian soldier in London as part of a fascinating occupational therapy programme.


The fascinating story of California House at 82 Lancaster Gate is recounted here, but in short the hospital was set up in 1914 by an American expat artist and writer called Julie Heyneman, who – like many in London in the early months of the war – was horrified by the casualties caused by the German advance into Belgium. California House became a refuge for injured, displaced Belgian soldiers who were taught languages and sciences.


Those left paralysed or limbless were encouraged to take up activities like painting, book-binding, wood-carving and drawing – anything that required manual dexterity. Objects created, such as the tin above, were then sold to Londoners, with the soldier-creator keeping some of the proceeds. A similar establishment, Kitchener House at Cambridge Gate, Regent’s Park, was set up for British soldiers. California treated around 500 soldiers, some of whom were able to return home after the war and make a living from their new skills. It closed in 1918.


Being brave in SE8: Extraordinary Heroes at the Imperial War Museum

Have you ever heard of Geoffrey Keyes and Operation Flipper?

I hadn’t until this week, when I learnt that Keyes was a Second World War commando who led a team 400km behind enemy lines in North Africa in a bid to assassinate Erwin Rommel. The group evaded guards around the perimeter fence and got inside the house used as the German HQ, but as they entered a ground-floor room Keyes was shot and killed. Rommel wasn’t even in the house at the time.

Keyes was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross and his story is ripe for a film, but this is the first I’d heard of it.

The new Extraordinary Heroes gallery at the Imperial War Museum is full of such remarkable tales, 243 in all, each tied to either a Victoria or George Cross. 164 of these medals belong to Michael Ashcroft, the Tory party donor, who has also forked out £5m for a new gallery to house them – the first permanent gallery at the museum for a decade. Well, I guess it beats paying tax.

The gallery is a great example of how with a bit of thought a museum can make a lot out of a little. The exhibits – the medals – are not much to look at, and the VC itself is almost parodically tasteful, a modest thing of dull brass (it’s made of gun metal) with a sober ribbon the colour of dried blood. There are numerous medals on display here, and the VC is always the least conspicuous of the lot.

But the curators have done wonders with this unpromising material, emphasising the extraordinary stories behind each medal with frugal but compelling text and embellishing some of the tales with props such as the diving suit worn by James Magennis when placing mines on a target in 1945 or a portrait of recent VC awardee Johnson Beharry taken by Don McCullin.

Johnson Beharry VC by Don McCullin, 2010 - Imperial War Museum

 There’s wit here as well such as a stuffed white rabbit to represent the codename of spy Forest Yeo-Thomas or the surprisingly effective touch-screen version of some of the stories told in Victor comic style. The IWM uses these informal touches confidently, never lapsing into poor taste and aware that excessive sobriety can be just as offputting.

While the bravery of these men and women is moving, the circumstances are often maddening. Many medals were awarded during the carnage of Gallipoli, and there was something about the story of Alfred Wilkinson, a Private who was awarded a VC for delivering a message during the First World War after four previous messengers had died, that somehow summed up all that is most horrific and pointless about that conflict.

Some medals were awarded in peacetime. An 11-year-old girl was given a George Cross in Canada in 1916 for fighting off a cougarm, while Harry Wilson was awarded a GC in 1924 for saving the lives of his colleagues in a flooded colliery.

And, bringing it all back home, a George Cross was awarded for bravery in South London after unarmed PC Tony Gledhill chased a car filled with armed robbers from Creekside Street, Deptford into Rotherhithe. Gledhill’s car was shot at around 15 times by the robbers before he confronted them on foot and eventually subdued the men, securing the conviction of four criminals, including John McVicar.

There’s always a London connection if you look hard enough.

Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

A new British Museum exhibition opens this week and it’s already a guaranteed success. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I went to the press view of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and afterwards felt much the same as I do after every British Museum exhibition: overwhelmed and underimpressed. But I knew that all the big reviewers would give it a knee-jerk five stars – and sure, enough, before I’d even got home, the first suitably awestruck review was in. Meh.

So why was I so bored, and am I on my own with this? Well, the exhibits are undoubtedly important and fascinating – papyrus and artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs, many dating back more than 3,000 years, which together tell the story of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. But, gawd, ain’t there a lot of it? And why does the exhibition space look so bloody boring?


The British Museum has an incredible talent at taking something potentially fascinating and kicking all the life out of it through stuffy, unimaginative presentation and a conviction that more is better – and getting away with it every time. 

At Book Of The Dead we get acres – and I really mean acres – of stuffy captions and endless cases containing aged papyrus covered in hieroglyphs, with only the odd gaudy mummy case by way of variation. After seeing the first room, I felt I’d seen it all and would have had a more enjoyable experience sitting down with a cup of a tea and reading a good book on the subject. But I still had another dozen rooms to trudge round. Exhibitions are meant to bring a topic to life, but this was deadening. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was relatively empty – for the average punter, it must be chaos.

I’m not sure I’m entirely out on my own here – on my way into the exhibition I bumped into a friend coming out, and he said much the same thing, as did Time Out Art on Twitter. But the British Museum’s methods clearly convince most of the reviewers and they certainly draw the crowds; these are, after all, two of the constituents museums most need to impress. 

As a lover of museums, though, I cannot help feel that the BM is doing the art of exhibitions a disservice. There is none of the thoughtful wit of the Imperial War Museum, or the layered smarts of the Wellcome Collection, or the sheer intellectual depth of the British Library, all three of whom have new exhibitions opening next week that will not get anything like the attention of the BM.

The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town. That really would be a shame.

Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad car at the Imperial War Museum

If the V&A’s latest exhibition demonstrates that big can be beautiful, the new acquisition at the Imperial War Museum shows that small can be profound.

It’s a car, badly damaged and barely recognisable, that was caught in a suicide bomb blast in Baghdad in 2007. The artist Jeremy Deller got hold of it and toured it across America on the back of a truck in the company of a US soldier and an Iraqi citizen for a piece entitled It Is What It Is. Now, shorn of any artistic element, it is on display at the Imperial War Museum. My review in the New Statesman can be read here.

After interviewing Deller, I avoided reading too much about the car before I wrote the piece other than this by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. Jones, I think, slightly overdoes his praise – is it really true that ‘a dismembered body is what you immediately think of when you come into the museum and see a car’? – while the commentators beneath the line seem obessessed with the pointless and hoary argument about ‘what is art’.

They’ll never be able to answer that question from behind their computer screens because this compelling and thought-provoking piece needs to be seen on location and in context to be fully appreciated. It’s a fine and valuable addition to the IWM’s collection and makes a fascinating footnote in the history of war art.

Oh, and Jeremy Deller is one of the nicest famous people I have ever interviewed, right up there with Graham Taylor, the former England manager, belittled turnip and little appreciated ballet enthusiast.

War (museums), what are they good for?

After last week’s trip to the Imperial War Museum North, this week I was at its southern sibling, the original IWM in Lambeth.

I always look forward to a trip to the IWM, not because I have a particular fondness for military memorabilia – although I did have a youthful obsession with the novels of Sven Hassel and still go weak at the knees at any mention of Colditz (it’s not my favourite prisoner of war camp, but I won’t go any further because I’ve probably already put you off with the words ‘favourite prisoner of war camp’) – but because the IWM has a well-deserved reputation, round my house at least, for putting on the best exhibitions in London. Only the Wellcome Collection can compare.

Their latest, opening in time for half-term, is the Ministry of Food about WWII rationing. Not the most promising subject, at least not until placed in the IWM’s capable hands. This, remember, is the museum that managed to make a subject as dull as camouflage not just interesting but fascinating and essential.

Starting with the land girls and ending with the arrival of Sainsbury’s in Croydon (pictured above), the exhibition looks at just about every aspect of food production during the war. There is a great selection of photos, paintings, posters and props, and also some terrific larger set-pieces such as a full-size greenhouse and a beautifully stocked walk-in wartime shop, a snapshot of which can be seen at the very top. The canteen is also running ration-themed food including mock goose, made with butter and marmite, although there is real food if that sounds a bit much.

It was educational, interesting, accessible, intelligent and fun – all those things an exhibition should be, but so often aren’t. And by that, I include most of those yawnsome chin-stroking ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions at the major museums that always get rave reviews even though everybody you talk to admits they found them a little dull.

No chance of that here. Look, it’s a greenhouse!

London’s museums face a tough time over the next couple of years, with severe budget cuts expected. At more than one museum, staff members have told me that they are expecting to take a hit whoever wins the general election ‘because they aren’t schools or hospitals’. Perhaps that’s as it should be and museums shouldn’t expect to be subsidised, but temporary exhibitions could easily suffer. They are expensive to mount and the bean-counters can be frustratingly short-sighted when it comes to the concept of long-term added value.

So go see Ministry of Food because a) it’s the right thing to do; b) it’s really very good indeed; c) you’ll discover a lovable character called ‘Potato Pete’. I wonder if he likes crisps?