Imperial War Museum (IWM) London’s new Second World War Galleries offer the most comprehensive and wide-ranging museum presentation of what it rightly calls the most significant event of the 20th century.
As historian Margaret Macmillan suggests in her foreword to Total War, IWM’s excellent accompanying book by three of the museum’s curators, this was “a total and a global war… even more far-reaching in its scale and scope than the first, and we still live with its consequences.
It remains, too, in our imaginations and memories. We may have read some of the hundreds of histories and memoirs, looked at the photographs and films, listened to the music from the time or visited the great war memorials or museums. We may even have memorabilia, an old uniform or gun brought home by a family member. Yet there will always be more to learn and understand.”
This underlines the enormous challenge of dealing with this complex subject that is just within living memory and was experienced in many different ways by individuals and societies across the world.
Two separate conflicts, one in Europe and the other in Asia, soon merged into an unprecedented global struggle, which in six years brought an estimated death toll of 60 million.
Most of these were not battle casualties in the various armed forces involved, but were civilians who died or were deliberately killed as a result of the extreme racist and nationalist ideologies that took hold in the east and the west in the unstable aftermath of the first world war.
The great strength of the IWM in covering this is that it is not primarily a military museum and constrained by direct links to the armed forces. It was founded during the first world war in a spirit of remembrance, and for the last century has collected and documented material of every kind that records the experience of war by individuals.
This includes the weapons, uniforms, vehicles and flags of the military but also any other type of object that gives a sense of how war looks, sounds and feels. It has grown to include film, photographs, sound recordings, diaries, works of art and the stories that go with these objects.
This comprehensive collecting policy has enabled the IWM to offer what amounts to a unique multimedia modern social history of the war years in
the 20th century and beyond.
It began as an initiative of remembrance, but has developed a much wider view and interpretation of the global experience of warfare in the machine-age. In the process, the museum has also developed an intelligent critique of the dangerous racism, nationalism and new forms of imperialism that still shape the world.
The Second World War Galleries have been carefully structured to present the experience of the key years, 1939-1945, together with an explanation of the descent into conflict in the 1930s and the outcomes after the end of the war.
Separate new galleries on the Holocaust explore the horrific story of Nazi Germany’s attempted annihilation of Europe’s Jews and other minorities. Both galleries are currently accessed with free timed tickets but because of the display content the Holocaust Galleries are not recommended by IWM for anyone under the age of 14.
On entering the Second World War Galleries, visitors are guided by short, colour-coded text panels in each section of the displays that are easy to read and extremely well written.
Large-scale edited film projections on the walls, none of them lasting more than 30 seconds, give an immersive newsreel feel to subjects such as the German Blitzkrieg advance across Europe in 1940 and the Russian defence of Moscow in 1941, when the Germans suffered their first defeat. These films provide a dramatic visual narrative to the static object displays in showcases around them.
Each gallery has highlighted objects chosen to symbolise a particular theme or story. The German Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, is introduced in a very formal 1937 portrait that had been hung in the German Embassy in London and was presumably put into storage two years later when war broke out. While Hitler was extreme in his politics, he was notably conservative in his artistic tastes.
The Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, by contrast, first appears nearby in a modernist sculpture of his profile. Stylish but sinister, the smooth black terracotta piece, viewed the same from all angles, is Renato Bertelli’s 1933 artwork Continuous Profile (Head of Mussolini). Unlike the Nazis in Germany, fascist Italy embraced modernism in art and architecture while creating a brutal totalitarian state.
While giving a clear overview of a complex global story, the IWM’s curators clearly wanted to emphasise the role of individuals’ experience in war and have used photographs and stories of people associated with selected display objects wherever possible.
It is a very effective way of personalising the conflict by seeing it through the eyes of named characters whose wartime experience might otherwise be hidden or marginalised. This also downplays the role (and, arguably, the responsibility) of the dictators and leaders of Germany, Italy and Japan in leading their countries into a catastrophic war.
The big names in the axis and allied powers are all featured, but the extensive use of “ordinary people” stories from around the globe is a very effective device that underlines the notion that total war meant a people’s war that affected everyone in some way.
It also foregrounds an impressive range of stories and exhibits involving civilians and the military – women as well as men – and the people of the British empire along with “enemies” of the allied powers.
Journey through time
The presentation is superb throughout. They are quite the best new permanent displays I have seen in any UK museum for many years (perhaps since the IWM’s First World War Galleries in 2014).
My only criticism is that despite the museum’s thoughtful provision of aids such as folding stools, albums with enlarged text labels, braille and sound guides, there is no basic guidance to help plan and pace your visit. Numbered galleries and a recommended route would help.
After 90 minutes I needed a coffee break, but didn’t know how far I had got or where I could leave the intestinal galleries. It turned out I was only halfway through, and I had to get another timed ticket after my break before continuing for another half hour.
Taking on the gruelling Holocaust Galleries after that was not a relaxing experience, but nor should it be. Visiting the IWM is a serious and thought-provoking business, not an entertainment.
My advice to anyone left exhausted by their first visit would be to go back for a second look. Allow yourself more time, because you are bound to underestimate how much you need, and buy the book to follow up at home. Total War reproduces nearly 400 of the objects and images used in the galleries with the same informative captions and a full text to dip into at your leisure.
You shouldn’t expect to have a jolly time in a war museum, but the IWM is,
as ever, a rewarding and enlightening experience that underlines the importance and relevance of history even if we never learn the lessons.
Oliver Green is an independent curator and historian