Mr Londoner reflects on a life-time relationship with the Imperial War Museum (IWM).
I grew up in the 1970s, the son of London parents who’d experienced the Second World War first-hand. I was obsessed with films like the Great Escape and the Battle of Britain. I loved ‘playing war’. And that was what the IWM was all about to me when I first visited – in 1972. I was enthralled by the jeeps, tanks and tommy guns. And I obsessed about the uniforms.
Mr Londoner grew up on tales of derring-do @meetmrlondoner
But then something happened. My father showed me the huge 1919 painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent. The American artist depicted columns of British soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, returning from the horror of the trenches during the First World War. I was appalled. And that picture haunts me to this very day. This was my first profound – possibly even life-changing – experience in a museum. And museums should curate content that’s both profound and life-changing. What’s the point of them otherwise?
The IWM’s remit is to promote ‘the study and understanding of modern war and the wartime experience.’ It nestles in the leafy grounds of the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in Lambeth, south-east London. You can’t miss the place for its two enormous ships’ guns standing vigil outside. The attractive copper-domed building bears testament to its past. This was once the Bedlam Hospital, where 19th century patients were incarcerated and displayed for Victorian entertainment. Iron shackles can still be found in that dome, now the library, but off-limits to the general public.
The shadow of war
Formed in 1917 during the First War, the museum has gone through several re-inventions since. In the 1980s, museums around the world began to re-think their objectives. They were becoming less about places where white men in white coats presented things in glass cases. Museums were transforming into cultural hubs. They remained centres of learning and education but they also became places of experience and of connection. Museums could be surprising. They could shed new light on old stories and foster peace and understanding. And they could also be places where you could get a decent cup of coffee. The Victoria and Albert Museum ran a famous 1988 ad campaign describing itself as ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’.
The IWM followed suit. From the late 1980s it too began a process of re-invention into something more contemporary and connected. Quite a transformation for a place that still bears the problematic words Imperial and War and Museum in its title. I worked with the IWM staff during the 1994 D-Day commemorations. I remember then how fresh and modern the place seemed.
Salad days. Mr Londoner worked with the IWM during the 1994 D-Day commemorations @meetmrlondoner
The museum’s ongoing developments included the installation of the UK’s first dedicated Holocaust exhibition. It cost £5m and opened in 2000. In 2014, the IWM was dramatically and controversially re-modelled by architects Foster and Partners – and re-branded as IWM London.
Over Here! US recruitment poster 1917
The £40m makeover included the creation of the immersive World War One Galleries.The rich objects here remind us of the horror of total war. The display includes some of the world’s very first tanks and warplanes. And alongside the uniforms and equipment are harrowing personal testimonies. The museum presents truly powerful artefacts, letting the content speak for itself and moving away from complex signage and wordy descriptions.
A Supermarine Spifire has pride of place in the museum’s atrium @meetmrlondoner
Lost and found
The first object in the Second World War galleries is all that remains of a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero or ‘Zeke’ fighter aircraft. This was shot down on the Pacific island of Taroa. It was re-discovered by an American archaeologist, in 1995, alongside the pilot’s leather flying helmet and rubber dinghy. Nearby is a Chevrolet truck, preserved in the sands of the Egyptian desert. This was used by the raiders of the Long Range Desert Group, led by the Phantom Major David Stirling. These allied irregular troops created havoc – attacking remote North African airfields miles behind German and Italian lines.
‘Waikaha’ – Late 30s Chevrolet WB 30-cwt truck used by New Zealanders of the Long Range Desert Group in 1940_41 @meetmrlondoner
Don’t miss the lumbering Sherman Tank. And next to it ‘Old Faithful’ Monty’s staff car. This 1941 camouflaged Humber Super Snipe convertible was the personal ride of General Bernard Law Montgomery, whose Eighth Army – the Desert Rats – defeated General Rommel’s Afrika Corps in 1942, at the Battle of El-Alamein.
‘Old Faithful’. Monty’s Humber Snipe staff car @meetmrlondoner
There is an intricate scale model of the badly-damaged MV (Motor Vessel) St Demetrio London. This British oil tanker departed Halifax, Nova Scotia, in November 1940 as part of Convoy HX84. Shortly after, she was attacked by the German destroyer Admiral Scheer. Despite transporting over 11,000 tonnes of aviation fuel and being set ablaze, the ship managed to limp home across the Atlantic. Her lightly armed Royal Navy escort HMS Jervis Bay was sunk after a brave fight, with the loss of 183 lives – the majority of its crew.
Model of the MV San Demetrio London @meetmrlondoner
Closer to home is a one-person blast shelter used during the Blitz and a model of a typical wartime house, with its mud and tin-built Anderson air-raid shelter in an otherwise standard back garden. This would have been a familiar sight in the 1940s. It’s a stark reminder of the daily danger of death and destruction on the everyday lives of ordinary people – a fear that resonates around the globe to this day.
The Imperial War Museum is one of a group of institutions including the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast. It’s open seven days a week and entry is free. Mr Londoner is broadcaster, writer and photographer Antony Robbins. Meet Mr Londoner