So we were in the UK last week and, of course, museums had a prominent place in the itinerary. The Imperial War Museum, London, was on our must-visit list, and it did not disappoint.
The renovated First World War galleries were impressive in their integration of objects, documents, people’s voices, and multimedia to provide an interesting, engaging and multi-layered visitor experience. This was a “big picture” gallery that covered a wide range of topics and experiences.But there were enough personal narratives to showcase the impact of the war on the people.
A complementary exhibition that was probably my favourite was “A family in wartime”. This exhibition shows how ordinary families were affected and lived through the Second World War through the eyes of the Allpress family. The exhibition starts with a family tree providing details of the family members, and a dollhouse model of their home. The exhibition is then anchored by life-size contextual displays of various sections of the home eg. living room, kitchen which each deal with various aspects of life during the war.
While many exhibitions frequently incorporate family stories, not many are able to sustain a whole exhibition based on a singular family. This is because it is a huge undertaking. For one, it is not easy to select a family which is typical yet sufficiently interesting as a case study.
Secondly, the family in question needs to be willing to open up their lives (in terms of objects and stories) to public scrutiny, not something every family is willing to do. When doing my own family history, some members asked that my great-grandfather’s opium smoking not be mentioned (“it’s not nice”) even though it was then not the taboo it is now.
The last exhibition that caught my interest was on Britain’s special forces during the Second World War. There was nothing ground-breaking about the display which was the standard text-panel-and- showcase approach, but there was this video that intrigued me. It was a historical black and white film that related how special forces (i.e. spies) were recruited, trained and deployed. It was like the movies except that it was real.
Overall, we had an excellent time at the IWM. On the side, the café and bookshops are also worth a visit. We highly recommend a visit if you are in London.