Monday, 23 November 2015

Imperial War Museum

Lambeth Road SE1 6HZ
Thursday November 19 2015


Bear with me – in order to keep the blog going this week, this will be by way of an introduction and overview for reasons which will become clear. Quite why it has fallen to me to write this up when both Jo and 63 Regular have worked there and are historians, is not clear.

When we started this project we declared (never declare) that we would  report only on the substantive collections, where that was what the Museum was famous for, and just refer in passing to any special exhibitions. Well today we visited only for the special exhibitions and did not even finish them... So I thought I would spend a little time on looking at the building.
The building was originally the third incarnation of the Bethlem or Bedlam Hospital, a purpose-built institution to ‘look after’ or ‘keep safe’ the mentally ill of London (though the words used would not have been that): the now covered Atrium was an outdoor exercise yard for this Victorian building, the galleries were wards,  and the smaller back offices consulting or treatment rooms. There are stories among IWM staff of a ‘grey lady’ who walks the galleries at night and of poltergeist-like events in the cinema (formerly the institution’s theatre), perhaps restless spirits from its earlier use. The Bethlem as such moved further out into the ‘country’ – West Wickham as it happens, and you can read more of its history next week…

The Lambeth Road site is now one of the group of 5 branches of Imperial war Museums – we have already visited the Churchill war Rooms but have yet to visit HMS Belfast. Duxford and IWM North lie outside our remit of London. Arguably the Lambeth Road site has the most memorable and photographic exterior – a large dome originally the chapel for the Bethlem hospital and an imposing neo-classical portico. The War Museum was conceived in 1917 (when the eventual outcome of the war was far from certain) as a way of memorialising the British contribution to the ‘Great’ War – it became ‘Imperial’ rather than national when the countries of the Empire or Commonwealth demanded equal billing. It moved into the old Bedlam building in 1936, after previous incarnations at Crystal Palace and in South Kensington, and has carried out various projects to make the building better suited to its use as a museum.

The most recent rebuild was completed in mid July 2014 to coincide with the marking of the centenary of the start of the First World War.  It retains the central Atrium to some extent but with a reduced footprint at ground level: this means there are fewer ‘boys toys’ – tanks, vehicles and the like – though some of these re-appear rather dramatically on higher levels seemingly hanging over a precipice. We have yet to explore these various levels. The most recent rebuild has been partly about improving access – there is yet the issue of the front steps to overcome but within the main building there are more and larger lifts, a good bank of lockers and both a book and gift shop, where quite rightly pride of place is given to good quality reproductions of the Museum’s  superb poster collection. The basement houses banks of toilets also.

The Museum’s remit  has always been to look at conflicts where the British or Commonwealth forces have played a part and continue to do so; so collecting material is an ongoing process for this Museum. A small  exhibition space is thus reserved for ‘Cotemporary Conflict’ , a year of displaying items and material related to the UK role in Afghanistan finished recently and has just been replaced by something called Fighting Extremes'. This looks at two very different but in their way rather invisible enemies.

One side focuses on the role of the services helping try to destroy ISIS strongholds in Iraq, the Army by providing training for Kurdish fighters, the RAF by direct intervention.  Inevitably the identity of those  operational  men interviewed is disguised but their accounts are quite riveting; it says something about the openness of the services that they are in a position to give interviews, though the cynical part of me looks on it as a ‘recruitment/PR’ exercise. Less well known perhaps and just as praiseworthy are the roles of the Royal Engineers in erecting a field hospital in Kerrytown, MOD scientists from Porton Down in the long fight to manage and eradicate the spread of Ebola in West Africa, and the RAMC in treating local health workers who caught the infection. The British contingent focussed on Sierra Leone (with the US largely in Liberia, the French in Guinea ) and other international teams from China, Canada and South Africa also contributing . There is an excellent time line, some interviews with participating scientists who had to set up a lab that was safe and efficient from scratch and deal with a huge backlog of untested live samples of Ebola; the nursing and medical staff were in part MOD in part volunteers from the NHS. As virtually everything from  Ebola-infected premises has to be burnt there is little in the way of artefacts though Will Pooley’s boots stand out.
The two components of this small but very current exhibition give a very good insight into  both modern warfare and the humanitarian side of  Ministry of Defence personnel.

We shall continue this when we have completed our visit not only to the photographs of Lee Miller – A Woman’s War but also the substantive collection of the Imperial war Museum. 

1 comment:

  1. There is something appropriate about housing a museum about the madness that is war in a former mental hospital.