“Cathedrals of the Modern World”: London

Calling museums “cathedrals of the modern world” (as I quoted cultural historian Jay Winter last week) might seem like setting the bar awfully high. Probably too high for something like the National Army Museum in London, which seeks simply to document the evolution of the British way of war in a way that’s neither intimidating nor all that challenging. Across the Thames, on the other hand, the Imperial War Museum probably comes as close as any museum to expressing the “sacred questions” that Winter believes can be encountered in such spaces. Though it might (like cathedrals) be a bit too grand for some…

In addition to my own comments on these two museums (in particular, their First World War exhibitions), let me pass along some thoughts from my wife Katie on each site, as she stood in well for those among my readers and future students who might not be WWI buffs but are willing to learn.

Katie and WWI Tank
Katie posing with a British tank from WWI at the Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum

Actually a set of museums, I’ll be referring to the main London campus (in Southwark; a five-minute walk from the Lambeth North Tube station) in this post. Also in London are the famous Churchill War Rooms and the HMS Belfast (both worth visiting, but — unlike the main campus or the IWM North satellite in Manchester — requiring paid admission); there’s also IWM Duxford, on the site of a former WWI/WWII airfield in Cambridgeshire.

Housed in what used to be an insane asylum (Royal Bethlehem Hospital — “Bedlam”), the IWM London focuses entirely on wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. Aside from the remarkable array of artillery, tanks, airplanes, and other “large exhibits” at the heart of the museum, its most significant permanent exhibitions are neighbors downstairs: one on World War I, one on World War II. As I described in the earlier post, one enters the area by passing through haunting photographs of the participants and victims of warfare, then a clock timed to show how often a life was lost to violence in the 20th century.

Following a sign, we turn left and display after display after display immerses us in the origins and experience of the First World War. It left Katie of two minds:

[It was] set up in a non-linear fashion, with nooks and crannies… So much to see!… [It was] set up so that you could visit many times and see different things…

I thought the Imperial War Museum was the most impressive, but as I walked through, it felt like it dragged on and on — like the war probably did…

IWM WWI Exhibit
One display case: Canadian and German soldiers, a French kepi, an Uncle Sam poster, etc.

I think both reactions are spot on. Some cabinets are overstuffed, and the exhibit is labyrinthine, drawing you deeper and deeper into the experience of the war.

Models of British women working in armaments factories — known as “Canaries” because of the yellowing they experienced from exposure to chemicals

I should write, experiences of the war, since the IWM does an excellent job of capturing the many places where the war was fought: from the deserts of the Middle East and the waters of the Pacific to the factories of London. Personal favorites included the touching pieces about Edith Cavell (my great-grandmother having been a nurse in the same war) and the example of British hardtack at Gallipoli.

But the Western Front is, understandably, the featured setting. And the centerpiece is the life-sized recreation of a trench, where snatches of voices reenacting common scenarios follow you through the near-darkness. Katie found it “more disconcerting… [It] made me feel claustrophobic… I wanted to get out of there… [It was] the first time I realized how small everything was, that the men were about my height [5’5″].”

I’ll skip over the excellent WWII exhibit (bridged from WWI by a concise series of displays on Versailles, the rise of fascism, etc.). But to my surprise, some of the most striking WWI pieces were two floors up from the WWI exhibit itself: in the IWM’s art gallery (photography not permitted). Its best-known WWI works include John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and Paul Nash’s We Are Making a New World (which I wrote about last summer, in a reflection on the reconfiguration of Christian eschatological themes). However, I was most struck by the final room in the gallery, currently housing photographs taken by artist Jim Naughten of WWI and WWII reenactors. Here’s how the IWM website describes the “unnervingly ethereal portraits” in the collection:

Photographed against a plain background in a portable studio, the re-enactors seem to gaze beyond the viewer into another time. Their uniforms and costumes are precise in their detail, but the artist confuses our perception of what we are seeing. The time and space are ambiguous and this disconcerting effect gives the viewer the feeling that they are looking at both the past and present simultaneously. Naughten tells us nothing of his sitters’ lives, nor does he express a view on their activities, but raises questions about collective perceptions of history and our own relationship with the past.

“…looking at both the past and present simultaneously” captures one of my goals for the course, so I’m hopeful that the Naughten exhibit will still be in place when I take students to London next January.

In thinking through such a travel course on WWI, my assumption had been that we would start with the IWM, but Katie makes a good case that it would be better to start with its lesser-known but perhaps more accessible cousin across town…

The National Army Museum

Averaging 4/5 stars on only nine Google reviews (vs. 4.5 stars on over 120 reviews for the IWM), the Army Museum (located next to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea; get off at the Sloane Square Tube stop, then walk ten minutes or hop on a bus) receives rather less attention than the Imperial War Museum, but probably deserves more visits than it gets.

First, it actually covers quite a bit more history than the IWM, ranging from the Middle Ages to the lesser-known (by Americans) chapters of Britain’s military history after WWII and the collapse of its empire. As such, it might be a better place to start the course, since exhibits on the Napoleonic way of war (lamentably not changed enough by 1914), the nature of the 19th century British army (my favorite: a flow chart that predicts where you would be placed based on your wealth, social status, height, education, etc.), and reforms prompted by the Boer War pave the way for the NAM’s relatively brief coverage of WWI (which is blends perhaps too smoothly into that of WWII) — and then the more extensive displays at the IWM.

Machine Gunners
Mannequins posed as British machine gunners at the National Army Museum

None of the NAM has the depth (or gravity) of the IWM, but by the same token, it’s also less intimidating. Or, as Katie put it: “…there wasn’t too much information everywhere… [It] wasn’t too overwhelming for me….” Indeed, some of the NAM’s many interactive displays (try on a soldier’s webbing! load a musket!) would likely “appeal to a wider range [of people] who would go through [the museum] without being totally interested in the war.”

Later this week: we close this brief series on WWI in European museums with visits to two on the Continent.

<<Read the first post in this series          Read the last post in this series>>

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