Imperial War Museum, London
An eminent war museum in London
, Great Britain
, and in fact one of the leading such institutions in the world.
Its recent revamp and the all-new WWI
exhibition have attracted a lot of attention – and increased visitor numbers, so that it is now one of the top attractions of the city in general.
Of particular interest to the dark tourist is also the museum's outstanding Holocaust
exhibition. But other sections cover many further specifically dark aspects of 20th century history and contemporary world affairs – even beyond just military
war as such (e.g. other genocides
, terrorism, espionage, propaganda, etc.).
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is THE premier war museum in Great Britain
– a country which isn't exactly short of war-related museums. But this one is the "mother" of them all. Today it also has several branches in other parts of the country, as well as in London
itself (including the Churchill War Rooms
The decision to establish the museum was taken in 1917, while World War One
was still raging. In its first incarnation the museum opened in 1920 at Crystal Palace, was then crammed into insufficient space in two galleries adjoining the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, before reopening in 1936 at its present location inside the central part of the former Bethlem Royal Hospital, once an infamous hospital "for the insane".
The IWM's initial remit was to document and teach about the causes and consequences of "The Great War", i.e. World War One
. During the even worse war that was soon to follow, WWII
, the museum remained closed, and its collections were moved elsewhere for safe storage, until reopening in 1946.
Since then, its mission has been expanded to cover all conflicts that Great Britain
(and/or the Commonwealth) has been involved in since 1914 and throughout the 20th century, including the Falklands War
of 1982, the Gulf War in 1991 against Iraq
. and recent military missions in Afghanistan
. The Cold War
also gets some coverage.
Military-related museums in Britain can often be rather on the glamorizing side (some definitely too much so for my taste), but the Imperial War Museum in London is partly an exception. OK, it also does the heroes and great nation stuff to a degree, but overall it is rather balanced, sober and informative.
The museum has evolved a lot over the years. I remember it from my first visit in the 1980s, when it was still rather old-fashioned. That had already changed dramatically by the turn of the century.
But the biggest change yet came with the WWI
centenary anniversary in 2014. To coincide with that significant date, the museum underwent a massive revamp. Not only was the WWI gallery completely redesigned, but much of the rest of the museum was given an overhaul too. Most notably an all new atrium was constructed as the centrepiece of the building.
The museum was closed for a whole year or so while all that work was in progress. But on 19 July 2014 it reopened in time to mark the centenary of the Great War. And at the beginning of 2015 I was finally able to revisit and see for myself what has changed.
The changes include both gains and losses. The atrium reconstruction meant that fewer large exhibits would fit in it, and so some were moved either to different sections within the museum itself or even away to outlying branches of the museum elsewhere.
The biggest loss is (for me at least) the Polaris nuclear missile that used to counterpoint the still present V2
to represent the Cold War
more visibly. (The Polaris was a so-called “SLBM” – that's 'submarine-launched ballistic missile', a type of ICBM
). The whole topic of the Cold War now rather takes a back seat.
But overall, the museum has definitely gained from the revamp. More recent and even contemporary, ongoing conflicts, and the politics around them, are much better covered now. The Falklands War
has its own elaborate gallery now with many impressive original artefacts on display. And related to this is also the largest new exhibit, hanging in the air from the ceiling in the atrium: a Harrier jump jet.
Most exhaustively affected by the reworking is the WWI
gallery. The new exhibition, though a bit crammed, is much more sober and historically astute compared to the old one (no more “trench experience” sound-and-light show elements and such like). It is also technically more state of the art (i.e. lots of interactive multimedia elements).
Also gone is the “Blitz experience” in the WWII
part that I still saw in 2010. You had to queue up for this 10-minute sound-and-light “show”, which I for one found a bit cheesy. Its demise may be lamented by the older kids who apparently loved this kind of entertainment element, but their loss is everybody else's gain, in my opinion.
The WWII theme is now also more scattered, with different aspects or “theatres” covered in separate locations, but that's not really a downside. Overall the extra exhibition floor space gained from the reconstruction of the atrium is well used. So ultimately the loss of some of the large-exhibit-space is more than compensated for.
The one section which is probably the museum's main draw from a dark-tourism perspective has (as far as I could see) not been affected by the 2014 revamp: the special permanent Holocaust
exhibition. It's extensive, covering two floors, and is THE major museum exhibition on the subject in Great Britain
But there's also much more that is of relevance to the dark tourist and most of it has been enhanced by the recent overhaul of the museum. More so than ever it is a top-notch attraction not to be missed when in London
What there is to see:
Even before you enter the museum building, there's an item of interest to look out for to the left of the main front facade: a section of the Berlin Wall
It's even one of the more interestingly graffitied ones: a wide open red mouth in which it says "change your life" (I found it ironic to see someone smoking a cigarette next to it – and was tempted to go up and say "read the wall!").
Standing out even more than this single piece of wall are the two gigantic battleship gun barrels that poke up at a low angle straight in front of the museum entrance. They're so iconic, I had to choose them for the title picture above!
Once inside the museum building itself you enter the central atrium. The number of big objects on display here has been somewhat reduced due to the 2014 reconstruction of the atrium, but there's still quite a collection of remarkable “hardware”.
Among this are a green V2
(partly open at the back to allow a view of the inner workings) and a V1
"buzz bomb"– counterpointed by a British Spitfire plane. Together the ensemble is probably meant to stand for the Battle of Britain. High under the ceiling a modern plane has been added that is also of particularly British fame: a Harrier jump jet (see below
From the upstairs galleries you can see various other large objects poking out into the space of the atrium, such as a boat, a jeep, and an anti-aircraft gun battery. These belong to the respective exhibitions on various particular wars, but are through their positioning connected to the atrium, like hints beckoning you upstairs.
Underneath all these, on the floor of the atrium there is now a more tidied-up, i.e. smaller selection of objects. Most guns and tanks have been moved, though one cannon remains as well as a T-34 tank from WWII
, the latter almost “coyly” hidden under the rear staircase.
What now dominates the atrium floor, however, are two stunning modern-day exhibits: the larger one of these is a white Reuters media van that was damaged in Gaza by a rocket.
The other is the shockingly mangled and scorched, rusty wreck of a car destroyed in a terrorist bombing attack in Baghdad, Iraq
, in March 2007, which killed 38 people. The shock lies in the fact that you can see what the bomb did to this car and your imagination has to grapple with the thought of what it must have done to human bodies. The counterpoint to the gleaming war machines hanging from the ceiling above could hardly be more poignant.
The Baghdad car wreck is actually a kind of art installation by Jeremy Deller (in the tradition of the “readymade”). And before being displayed here at the IWM it was shown in various locations around the USA
– as a travelling exhibit to remind citizens of the ongoing quagmire left behind in Iraq …
Moving on from the central atrium you can then choose to start either downstairs (e.g. with the new WWI exhibition) or go upstairs first and head straight for the darkest of all chapters of history: the Holocaust exhibition
. I'll start with the latter as this is probably the most significant part of the museum from a dark tourism perspective. And it delivers: it's as grim as it is excellent!
The exhibition is organized in the usual chronological fashion, from initial Nazi
propaganda and repression of Jews, as well as other groups, in Germany
, via the Aktion T4
euthanasia programme, the deadly invasions of Poland
and the USSR
up to the so-called "final solution
Naturally, there aren't many original Holocaust artefacts in Britain, apart from memorabilia donated from survivors who settled in the UK (which are well represented). But the exhibition is impressively augmented by loans from memorial museums such as Majdanek
. It thus strikes a very good balance between textual and photographic exposition of the historical developments, some multi-media elements (especially video screens) and various reconstructions to supplement the original artefacts.
It is also well balanced as regards the amount of information presented – neither too abbreviated nor too much information overload. It is the museum's express intention to aim at school groups who visit as part of their studies, so getting this balance right was certainly a key factor in the design of the exhibition. There is necessarily some simplification, but overall I found the right balance maintained. It's not too excessive, but the visitor is not spared some rather graphic illustrations of the horrors of the Holocaust
Interestingly, there is the option of taking a "shortcut" between the point where the exhibition passes from the topics of ghettos and mobile killing squads ("Einsatzgruppen
") to "resettlement" so that you can go straight to the final section beginning with the destruction of evidence by the Nazis
and the discovery of the crimes by the Allies. That way visitors can avoid going through the grimmest part of the exhibition, especially the industrial mass-murdering operations of Auschwitz
and the Operation Reinhard death camps
. But if you can stomach it you should not skip this part.
These grimmest details of humanity's darkest chapter are illustrated also through the aid of some remarkable exhibits: part of a deportation railcar (donated by Belgian Railways), a canister of Zyklon B
gas pellets (as used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz
), partly torn striped concentration camp inmates' uniforms, and, as so often, victims' shoes …
What I found the most impressive exhibit of the entire museum was the scale model of a section of the Auschwitz-Birkenau
camp – stretching from the gatehouse and the ramp to the gas chambers and crematoria at the far end, flanked by just one row of barracks to stand for the sea of barracks that made up the rest of the camp's main area. The scale is probably something like 1:60 or so, but it still fills a whole room.
The scene depicted in the diorama is that of the selection of a newly arrived deportation train transport from a Hungarian
ghetto. You see tiny figures of guards and row upon row of new arrivals, selected either for work or already en route to the gas chambers. It's all in white plaster, no colour.
This model calls for a comparison with a similar model at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
that's also made from pure white plaster. The latter, however, uses a larger scale (maybe 1:15 or so) and concentrates on the gassing process itself: from the herding of victims into the room where they would get undressed to the agony in the gas chamber and the cremation of the bodies. It's ghastlier in that the scale allows faces to show expressions – including that of dying a most horrific death. This gives the model a real haunting effect, possibly even verging on the traumatizing.
The model at the IWM, on the other hand, succeeds less through such direct depiction of the horror experienced by the people in the scene (due to the smaller scale – they're all just tiny little figurines – one can't make out any facial expressions). Rather, it's the enormity of the industrial-scale operation of the whole camp that becomes tangible here (and less so at the USHMM
). It's almost like the aerial view that a reconnaissance plane would have had flying over the camp at that point in time. Both models function as central and crucially harrowing exhibits to represent Auschwitz
and both use the same material technique of white plaster – but they are very different in psychological effect.
The Holocaust exhibition at the IWM is augmented by video screens, placed throughout its various subsections, on which testimonies by survivor-eyewitnesses, who then settled in Britain, are played in a loop. This is the main element personalizing the narrative of the exhibition (apart from victims' letters and family memorabilia), and forms an important counterweight in the overall balance.
The one passage that stands out most in my memory of the museum is one man saying that when people ask him "how did you survive?" (the camps
and the death marches
) his sole answer can always only be "I don't know!" – and he reasons that ultimately this is probably what most survivors would have to say. It certainly underscored the "incomprehensibility aspect" of the whole story of the Holocaust.
Almost serving as a kind of "decompression chamber", the exhibition finishes with the war crimes tribunals (cf. Memorium Nuremberg Trials
) and with some general reflections before releasing the visitor from the dark of the Holocaust exhibition's black-walled rooms to the bright light of the 2nd floor gallery outside.
Next to the exit from the Holocaust exhibitionthere was (at the time of my visit in 2010), a complementing, though much smaller extra exhibition on "crimes against humanity". This in particular covered the other genocides
of the 20th Century, especially those in Armenia
and Darfur, Sudan. On my latest return visit in January 2015 I did not see this extra part, but neither did I specifically look for it. So I cannot be sure whether or not this section is still there.
But now for the new top attraction of the IWM, its all-new WWI exhibition
. I can't get into too much detail, so just pointing out a few highlights and giving a general assessment will have to suffice here.
Once you get in (there may be a wait at busy times, when crowd-control measures are in place), you enter a low-ceilinged maze of an exhibition space. My first impression was, hey, this is so much more crammed than I had expected! But this is actually part of the new exhibition being much more focused on smaller-scale exhibits. There are a few bigger war machines too, but there's much more emphasis on smaller things, documents, texts and interactive elements.
The scene is set by a video projection showing black-and-white footage of city life just before WWI. The exhibition proper then goes into some detail about the developments that led to the outbreak of war, including the relevant war propaganda.
In what follows, a lot of emphasis is placed on the realization of what a modern, hardware-driven, industrial-scale war actually meant: “a dastardly slaughter”, as one contemporary quote put it. This is further underscored by lots of letters and diary excerpts from the front lines.
Other less well known dark sides of the war are also picked up, e.g. the racist attitudes towards non-white troops from the British colonies on the part of the commanders, the plight of conscientious objectors, and the hardships endured by the civilian population at home. An interesting aspect is also the inclusion of the Easter 1916 rebellion in Dublin, Ireland – which was to shape the future of that country after the war.
Naturally, however, the course of WW1
itself and especially its infamous fronts and living-hell battlefields
are even bigger topics – Gallipoli
, Verdun and the Somme
, the lot.
The appearance of modern means of chemical warfare is a special element here as well, in particular the German attacks with mustard gas. The obligatory display of gas masks is augmented by interesting projections and interactive screens.
The largest ensemble by scale is the trench reconstruction (thankfully without any sound-and-light show elements now). This includes another invention of WWI: the British tank, as well as a Sopwith Camel biplane hanging from the ceiling overhead.
A particularly grim section, as was to be expected, is that on the physical and psychological damage done to soldiers, including gruesome images of disfigured faces and displays of prosthetic limbs.
The hero worship of old, on the other hand, very firmly takes a distant back seat – although there is a small section about war celebrities such as the Red Baron.
The exhibition finishes with a little afterthought about the outcome and implications for the future after the war.
If I were to compare the new WWI exhibition at the IWM to the new equivalent at the Military History Museum (HGM)
, I would say that the former fares somewhat better on the inclusion of side topics and covering the wider implications of the war, while the latter is more impressive in the large exhibits department.
Both are very similar, though, in their modern portrayal of war and the frankness with which the horrors of the Great War
are placed in the foreground. On the negative side, both exhibitions suffer a bit from lack of space, the IWM more so than the HGM. By this I mean the lack of space for visitors to move around in, not that allocated to the exhibitions contents (both are extremely rich in that latter respect). Especially at the IWM it had the effect that you often have to wait for visitors ahead of you to finish their viewing of particular displays or interactive elements before you could move on.
In the other sections at the IWM, such space restrictions are thankfully much less of an issue. So let's move on ...
is the section “Turning Points: 1934 – 1945
”. This is split into subsections in different locations. The division is mainly by the location of the war “theatre” in question, i.e. mainly Europe, Africa and the Pacific.
The section about the desert war in Northern Africa includes a bit of hero worship for Field Marshal Montgomery and his victory at El Alamein against the German Afrika Korps led by the “Desert Fox” General Erwin Rommel. A battle map drawn by the latter was presented by Rommel's son Manfred to his British counterpart Viscount Montgomery in 2011 as a gift of reconciliation and subsequently integrated into this exhibition. So it's a remarkable exhibit in more than one way!
The European “theatre”
is subdivided into a part focusing on the prehistory of the war, the rise of Nazism in Germany
, the Munich agreement and the early phases of the actual war.
The Battle of Britain is naturally given quite a bit of attention – and it is this section that the Spitfire fighter in the atrium is linked to. A smaller and intriguing item on display is a secret German invasion map. This is contrasted by pieces of a shot-down German He-111 bomber.
More war debris from a different chapter of the war is nearby: the remains of one of the midget submarines used by Britain in the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz in Norway
in 1943. Next to this is an intact, green mini sub whose nose protrudes far into the atrium. So you find what that strange thing really is that looked like an oversized torpedo when seen from the atrium floor. Another large object in this section is a rescue boat from a supply ship by the Germans in the Atlantic
One of the absolute star exhibits in this part is a specimen of the famous Enigma machine
, whose code was so successfully broken by the British at Bletchley Park
The very largest star exhibit within the WWII
section, however, is the front section of a Lancaster bomber
. You can't actually climb through it up to the cockpit any more (which I remember from my first visit to the IWM in the 1980s), but you do get a good view in.
Remarkably, the controversial nature of the Allies' own aerial bombing campaigns
like that on Dresden
, for which Britain's Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris was largely responsible, is not swept under the rug. It is represented mainly by a cluster of incendiary bombs suspended from wires in the air and a corresponding film about the devastating bombing
The D-Day landings are a topic elaborated on in its own section in the opposite wing of the museum. Here a Sherman tank is the largest exhibit. Models and film clips explain the landing operation.
Behind this section is a smaller one on the Pacific
“theatre”, i.e. the war with Japan
. The main exhibit here is the incomplete wreck of a Japanese “Zero” fighter plane salvaged from the waters.
In between these latter two sections, one particularly spooky exhibit is the Reich
's Eagle clutching a swastika in its talons – apparently an original seized from Hitler
's Chancellery in Berlin
As a kind of add-on to the WWII theme there's a separate exhibition about “A Family in Wartime”, including reconstructed living rooms of the period, toys, family photos, posters and so on. Especially remarkable here is the display of a fluffy “Squander Bug” (a cartoon character used in Britain to discourage wasteful spending). This toy version has a tash like Hitler
's and swastikas all over its belly – and a bullet hole in it. Apparently it was used as an air rifle practice target!
Standing in a prominent place as a visual link between the WWII and Cold War sections is a bomb casing of the type used for the Little Boy atomic bomb
that destroyed Hiroshima
in the final climax of WWII
. Apparently this is one of five original such casings made and the object is on loan from the USA
. So it isn't just a replica but, at least in part, a sibling of the real thing!
The Cold War
topic itself has now been made a part of the overarching theme “Peace and Security 1945 – 2014”. The first part about the Cold War
as such includes various replicas of more modern nuclear warheads/bombs. This is juxtaposed with an artist's impression of a body scorched by a nuclear blast, made from a shop-window mannequin. The charred black human shape can indeed send shivers down your spine.
One star exhibit I failed to see here on my last visit (though the museum still has it – I checked on its website's collection pages) is Leonid Brezhnev's uniform
– apparently donated to the museum by one of the former bodyguards of the bushy-eyebrowed Soviet icon. Brezhnev was leader of the USSR
between 1964 and 1982.
The section about the era after the Cold War
, i.e. from 1990 onwards, is one of the most intriguing and challenging parts of the IWM, as it is about those modern-day conflicts
right up to the present day. This section mainly covers the issue of terrorism
and the wars in Iraq
The latter is represented by a piece of mangled steel that turns out to have been a window frame from the North Tower of the World Trade Center
in New York
A smaller-scale but much more frequent type of terrorist attack is creepily exemplified by a suicide bomber's vest seized in Afghanistan
as recently as 2013!
Two especially noteworthy exhibits are of a more political/propagandistic nature but nonetheless just as remarkable: One is a mosaic depiction of Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein in a classic pose with a rifle held at the hip. After Saddam Hussein was deposed it was taken down by British troops on request by Iraqi locals.
This is counterpointed by a poster showing an image of then Prime Minister Tony Blair in a similar pose but with an upturned teacup on his head, accompanied by the slogan “make tea not war”. This is of course to represent the widespread discontent among the general public about the controversial decisions over the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003.
There are also items related to Iraq's use of chemical weapons, a reconnaissance drone used in Afghanistan by the Royal Artillery, and the two largest exhibits here: a UN armoured vehicle and a “Snatch” Land Rover in desert war camouflage colours. The latter was used by British troops in Iraq after 2003. Its vulnerability to roadside bomb attacks earned it its informal nickname of “the mobile coffin”.
The contemporary section finishes with the display of a witness box from the Lockerbie trials against the two Libyans accused of planting the bomb that had brought down a Pan Am 747 over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing all 259 on board. This exhibit serves to represent the ethical and legal difficulties in dealing with terrorism.
Across on the other side of the atrium two particularly British conflicts of the post-WWII era are represented separately. The “troubles”
in Northern Ireland
and the Falklands War
The long and bitter conflict in Northern Ireland is represented by a few remarkable objects, the largest of which is one of the typical imposing armoured vehicles used by the British, as well as a remotely controlled bomb-disposal vehicle. Terrorist weapons as well as a number of artists' takes on the conflict are also on display.
Overall this section, entitled “War on the Doorstep
”, places a little more emphasis on the terrorist element, and also on the eventual political breakthrough that led to the end of the armed conflict in 1998. But the darker sides of the British
involvement in the region are less clearly spelled out: e.g. Bloody Sunday
, while mentioned in passing, is not exactly elaborated on. On the other hand they give the name of the region's second city (after Belfast
) as “Derry
(formerly Londonderry)”, which I suppose is a concession to the Republican side.
The section on the Falklands War
was of exceptional interest to me, since I had been to the Falkland Islands
myself only a year earlier. Amongst the objects on display here is a replica of an Exocet missile hanging from the ceiling (that's the type of French-made anti-ship missile that the Argentinians used to attack British ships), an Argentinian anti-aircraft gun battery and a primitive operating table from an Argentinian field hospital.
The coverage also includes the more recent flaring up of the propaganda war
over the islands, which Argentina
continues to claim. The roots of the respective British and Argentinian territorial claims are only superficially hinted at, however, which is probably owing to a reluctance on the part of the curators to pour more oil into the fire of this dispute. (Although I would have thought the much stronger British arguments could well have been stated more explicitly – see this separate chapter
which I compiled on these issues!)
Possibly the most remarkable artefact on display in this section is the Maggie Thatcher
puppet from the satirical show “Spitting Image
”. The series had gone on air a couple of years after the war (it was discontinued in 1996) and frequently made reference to the Falklands War
and the Iron Lady's cold resolve in the matter. I remember these satirical depictions of her very well, so the encounter with the familiar image of the puppet in the flesh (well: latex) was almost spooky for me.
The very largest exhibit in the atrium appears to be linked to the Falklands War as well – the Harrier jump jet. These were the key aircraft used with ultimate success in this war by the Royal Navy. But the one on display here is in fact a later model that was used in Afghanistan.
There are also further extra exhibitions, such as one on the theme of espionage
called “Secret War”, where formerly classified objects and documents can be seen. What I found especially remarkable was the fact that at the entrance to this section video monitors show what spy cameras film inside the exhibition – in other words: how the exhibition's visitors are being spied on themselves! (I had seen this twist in a similarly-themed exhibition before – namely at the KGB museum
Furthermore, there's a “Curiosities of War” collection and the “Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes”. The latter is the closest the IWM now comes to the old-fashioned, more glamorizing style of war museums. On display here are Victoria and George Cross medals with stories about those awarded these decorations. It's a celebration of “gallantry” and bravery. I didn't go in.
Additionally, temporary war-themed exhibitions (at the time of my latest visit there was one on the war in Afghanistan
) supplement the museum's already wide coverage further still, as do art exhibitions on related themes and cultural and educational events. Unlike the main museum exhibitions, some of these may cost an admission fee.
A worthwhile amount of time (and money!) can also be spent in the two museum shops: apart from more or less cheesy war-related toys (as well as plastic model kits of planes and the like) this shop also features an extraordinarily wide range of books on various periods and aspects of wars and (the history and politics of) conflicts in general, as well as a large section of DVDs with war movies and documentaries, including comprehensive box sets.
Overall there can hardly be any doubt that this is an absolutely top-notch attraction and a definite must-see museum in London
The only problem is its popularity, however well-earned it may be. This means that at peak times crowd-control measures have to be taken, whereby visitors are only let into the new WWI exhibition in controlled batches. And even then, it can be so crowded that it is hard to view everything without enduring repeated long waiting times before you can move on. But on balance this is a small price to pay for seeing such an extraordinary museum.
in south central London
, on the "other" side of the Thames (i.e. the side opposite Westminster), in the district of Lambeth, post code SE1 6HZ, namely on Lambeth Rd – sitting as a big, detached, domed edifice in a green park with huge battle ship gun barrels in front, so it is impossible to miss!
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to; free.
the nearest London
underground station is Lambeth North (Bakerloo line) just one block up the road (Kennington Rd), or you can use the Elephant & Castle station (Northern Line, Bank branch) and walk up St George's Rd (look for the black signposting plaques on the various underpasses' walls – without them the area is a bit tricky to navigate on foot).
Alternatively you could also use Waterloo station and walk down the south side of the station, following the signs to the museum. This route leads past Lambeth North tube station (see above).
In addition there are various bus lines going past the museum. It is also perfectly walkable from Westminster. It's only about a mile (1.3km) from Big Ben – just cross Westminster Bridge and head south-east on Westminster Bridge Rd, through the tunnel under the train lines, then down Kennington Rd and finally turn left into Lambeth Rd.
(which I find remarkable, as it is so very unlike London
or Great Britain
daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed only for Christmas)
Visitation is primarily self-guided, but there are also audio-guides available for the WWI gallery and the Holocaust exhibition. Various tours with live guides as well as a range of other educational programmes are also offered by the museum.
Almost all parts of the museum are wheelchair-accessible.
is forbidden in some parts of the exhibitions (it's not always entirely clear where what applies – you'd need to keep looking out for the signs), especially in the Holocaust section, where a museum warden/guard at the entrance reminds you of the no-photography policy.
Time required: Real war buffs could spend days in here – but even more selective dark tourists shouldn't underestimate the breadth of coverage in this excellent museum. The Holocaust exhibition alone can take up a couple of hours (or more if you really read and watch everything).
So for a reasonably selective but still thorough visit it's advisable to allocate the best part of (at least half) a day. Or why not come back on separate (return-)visits – since it's free …
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Lambeth is on the south-eastern bank of the Thames opposite Westminster, a reasonably easy walk (or short bus ride) away to the west. Not that Westminster is as such a dark tourism destination (well, depends on your political views, I'd guess), but in the midst of the Whitehall government district the Churchill War Rooms
is a most suitable combination. It's actually a branch of the IWM, hidden away at Clive Steps, King Charles Street, which runs parallel to Downing Street just one block south.
War museum buffs could also consider seeing the third branch of the IWM within London, namely the HMS Belfast
cruiser from WWII
, now permanently moored right opposite the Tower of London. The ship can be explored from top to bottom, from the bridge to the boiler rooms deep in the bowels of the hull.
Further afield the IWM also has yet more branches. One is in Manchester, where the IWM North
is housed in a new hyper-modern building that echoes the design of the new German military museum
(it was indeed designed by the same architect, Daniel Libeskind!).
And at IWM Duxford
in Cambridgeshire you can see lots of the larger objects at a historical airfield location. The emphasis is naturally on planes, but a smaller land hardware section complements this.
Apart from some noteworthy veteran planes on stationary display (including a Concorde), IWM Duxford is famous for its air shows involving planes that flew in the Battle of Britain in 1940! These are unabashedly nostalgic events, of course, so not strictly speaking “dark” … but I suppose it still depends on how you view it.
And those really into their veteran planes can even fly in one – either as a passenger or even, under instruction, in the form of getting a taster lesson as a trainee pilot!
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Just a short distance to the west, at the end of Lambeth Road across the Thames, is one of London
's premier cluster of top tourist attractions: The neo-gothic hulk of the Houses of Parliament with one of London's major landmarks, Big Ben. Just across the road is Westminster Abbey. On the other bank of the Thames the giant ferris wheel of the "London Eye" beckons those who are into these things.
Further north of Westminster Abbey is the central government district of Whitehall, with Downing Street as its "epicentre" (No. 10 being the seat of the Prime Minister).
Behind Whitehall to the west, St James's Park bridges the distance to Buckingham Palace. And further to the north Trafalgar Square forms the gateway to the West End, especially the entertainment and theatre district of Soho.
Most of the banks of the Thames are accessible these days by riverside walks – and if you feel energetic enough you could hike all the way from Lambeth Bridge to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
See also under London
- IWM 01 - Imperial War Museum and big guns in front
- IWM 02 - signs outside
- IWM 03 - segment of the Berlin Wall in the garden outside
- IWM 04 - new atrium
- IWM 05 - all changed and explained
- IWM 06 - the atrium before its refurbishment, still with more large exhibits
- IWM 07 - the Polaris missile is now gone
- IWM 08 - but the Harrier is new
- IWM 09 - Harrier from below
- IWM 10 - all new WW1 section
- IWM 11 - WW1
- IWM 12 - grim Great War
- IWM 13 - battlefield with gas mask
- IWM 14 - gas
- IWM 15 - WW1 memorabilia
- IWM 16 - WW1 war machines
- IWM 17 - trenches
- IWM 18 - German Pickelhelme and shells
- IWM 19 - Red Baron section
- IWM 20 - WWII section
- IWM 21 - V1 and Spitfire
- IWM 22 - cockpit of a Lancaster bomber
- IWM 23 - German Luftwaffe exhibit
- IWM 24 - Enigma machine
- IWM 25 - Pacific War section with Japanese plane wreck
- IWM 26 - WWII incendiary bombs
- IWM 27 - US Sherman tank
- IWM 28 - Hiroshima bomb
- IWM 29 - Cold War section
- IWM 30 - had the bomb been dropped
- IWM 31 - bomb disposal robot in the Northern Ireland section
- IWM 32 - Exocet missile in the Falklands War section
- IWM 33 - Harrier up front
- IWM 34 - salvaged from an Argentine field hospital in the Falklands War
- IWM 35 - Spitting Image Maggie Thatcher puppet
- IWM 36 - Lockerbie trial witness stand
- IWM 37 - World Trade Center steel
- IWM 38 - Saddam Hussein mosaic from Iraq
- IWM 39 - suicide bomber vest
- IWM 40 - mangled war witness in the atrium
- IWM 41 - media war
- IWM 42 - visitors are spied on in the spying section