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Preview – Visit – Imperial War Museum

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Photography By Kenda Lenseigne

The London Institution Chronicles the Human Element and the Technical Advancements of Warfare from WWI to Now

London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) was founded in 1917 and currently occupies the site of a former insane asylum. Its mission was to document the then-ongoing Great War, so it was perhaps inevitable and appropriate that at the centenary of the commencement of hostilities the museum would dedicate a huge amount of time and money to commemorate the sacrifices of both the armed forces and civilian population who were involved.

Following a six-month-long renovation, the museum reopened its doors on July 16, 2014, and has seen record attendance ever since. Although the WWI exhibit has received the most coverage, the IWM’s four levels cover conflicts from the early 20th century through to the present-day wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the visitor approaches the museum’s entrance, he or she is greeted by a pair of 15-inch naval guns, the largest ever to be fitted to a Royal Navy warship. Inside, a huge atrium displays “Witnesses to War,” a collection of nine objects ranging from a Harrier suspended from the ceiling, to V1 and V2 rockets, to a T34 tank.


Downstairs, the WWI exhibit leads the visitor though a chronological chain of events leading up to the outbreak of conflict and the hurried preparations to send 80,000 troops to defend France and Belgium from the German advance. As you wander through exhibits detailing the equipment and weapons used by troops, efforts made by the civilian population to support their fighting men are documented on the opposite side of the aisle. Multimedia displays are dotted throughout the exhibit, many of which utilize unique footage and recordings of the times, bringing to life the privations of ordinary people swept up in a global catastrophe. The museum’s extensive collection of original photographs, letters, and mementos was used to provide depth to the experience; some of the communications from the front are horrific in their understated descriptions of trench life — and death.

Weapons of War
Innovations in firearms technology are shown alongside weapons from another age. The display case of trench clubs — both improvised and issued — harkens back to medieval times and illustrates the brutality of close-quarter trench warfare. An original Brit sniper’s hand-painted ghillie suit is accompanied by the rifle of his German counterpart, a G98 with Hensoldt scope in a QD mount, which stands near a hollowed-out tree trunk used as an observation post. Machine guns from both sides are on display, including one Maxim with both a patched-up bullet hole in the water jacket from one firefight and a separate gouge from a different scrap. Given the volume of fire these MGs were tasked with delivering, they were no doubt witnesses to some of the most intense battles of the period.

Air power and armor saw their debut on the muddy wasteland of northern France and both are represented here in a display that incorporates a Sopwith Camel and Mark V tank above a recreation of a fighting trench, complete with sound and light displays.

Nearby, an exhibit details some of the advances spawned by the conflict, such as secure comms and instantaneous artillery fuses, which still have modern counterparts on today’s battlefield. As the visitor progresses through exhibits from 1914 through to the conflict’s close in 1918, the political aspect of the war is also covered — and in it you can see the seeds of subsequent conflagrations being sown, even as this one is being fought. The rise of the Third Reich is portrayed as inevitable, given the somewhat inconclusive nature of the armistice and reparations imposed by it.


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