The life and times of a happy go lucky blogger in London
London museum review: Britain at War v Imperial War Museum

We’re spoilt for choice in London when it comes to museums and attractions, so spoilt in fact that when it came to choosing where to take my daughter to see ‘some real war stuff’, we ended up going to two places; Britain at War and the Imperial War Museum. I didn’t think we would be able to compare them too much as the first is an out and out tourist attraction and the other a more traditional museum, but they both had Blitz Experiences which made our final judgement call easier.

So first stop was Churchill’s Britain at War on Tooley Street, SE1 just near London Bridge and the London Dungeon. I bought tickets online which gives a £3 discount and worked out at about £15 for an adult and child. The venue is easy to find as it’s covered in memorabilia outside; including a large V2 rocket.

We entered the exhibition by descending in a lift; once in the depths of the place we were soon hit by the musty smell of damp and old London. We followed the signs and arrived at a small screening room and watched some fascinating old war footage. We sat on old chairs and there were bunk beds along the side wall occupied with ‘civilians’ taking shelter from the blitz. They were dummies but it was a little unnerving as we were in the dark. The films were extremely moving; the stories were told through voice overs quoting from old letters; one in particular sent from a young man at sea during the war, his ship was sunk with the loss of over a thousand lives. The narrator read his letters home and the telegram to his Mother informing her that he was missing in action. It was very poignant to hear the stories of women who’d had their homes bombed and of course, the many children who were sent away to the country and away from London.

As we walked around viewing war memorabilia; including some great posters like the ones below. It was heavily focused on life at home and the impact of war on the British public.

There were some room sets like this listening post and a pub set up complete with a soldier taking some time out to read a newspaper. They were far from perfect but the place had a great atmosphere.

There were loads of articles from old magazines and I found this one of boys working in munitions factories quite stunning. In 2011, as we spend time looking at developing countries and ponder the fate of families, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, wartime Britain and Europe was facing the same, if not worse, conditions.

The exhibition space had some great displays from life in wartime Britain which included clothing, ration books, magazines and the obligatory gas masks. We got to sit in a bomb shelter, which was no bigger than a three man tent, and listened to the sirens and blasts. It felt surreal.

The grand finale of the tour is the Blitz Experience which is a walk through of a bomb site and it was really scary because we were the only two people there. It was dark, badly lit and there were lots of sound effects. A blown out house had a broken bath and water gushing from a burst pipe, there were broken bodies too (more dummies!). And then we arrived in the gift shop.

It was an interesting exhibition, definitely great for kids as it’s quite short, possibly a bit too short as I felt we had only seen half of what we should for the price.

We definitely had an appetite for more war stuff – so off we went to the Imperial War Museum. It’s not as conveniently placed as Britain at War but the venue is quite breathtaking. I also wanted us to see the Once Upon a Wartime exhibition which is based on five children’s books about war.

The museum is free and it’s got a great restaurant so we had lunch before going to the Once Upon a Wartime exhibition. We got our tickets for £10 for the both of us and spent some time walking round it. There are rooms dedicated to each of the books; War Horse, Little Soldier, Carrie’s War, The Machine Gunners and The Silver Sword, which are also on the year 6 curriculum at the moment. I was a bit disappointed to find the design of the Warhorse room – based around the book by Michael Morpurgo – aimed at very small children – I’d say about five years old – so it wasn’t easy for either of us to read the display cards.

There was a lot to take in and Carrie’s War had some great displays, including this kitchen cupboard which conceals a skull. Visitors are invited to interact with the exhibition and answer questions about war by using mixed media; from opening cupboards to using touch screens.

We moved around the floors which are choc full of anything from rockets, submarines and tanks to bombs and old buses, and found that the Holocaust Exhibition was not suitable for under 15s so off we went to view the Children at War rooms.

The display cabinets were great and I loved the artwork as well.

These food posters are pretty cool, especially since the potato is not even considered a vegetable in these 5-a-day days.

Secret War was by far our favourite, covering off MI5, MI6, SOEs and more and even better there’s a quiz for kids to take round and complete. There are some great displays of old spy gear which would not be out of place in a Bond movie.

There’s another are called Outbreak based around the start of World War II in England. There were more posters on display, including the now iconic ‘Keep Calm and Carry’ graphic which is all over the place right now due to the enduring credit crunch. It all felt unnervingly current.

With all there was to see at the Imperial War Museum, the big test for us was to compare the Blitz Experience offering with the one at Britain at War. We queued for ages and it was really disappointing. About 20 of us sat in a dark room and listened to a sound track voiced by ‘East Enders’ followed by a walk round of a bomb site. Our guide shone a torch to direct us where to look and we were both trying not to laugh because it seemed so amateur. We did snigger a little when we walked round in the semi dark and spotted another broken bath – the missing half of the one we’d seen earlier perhaps?

For all the grandiosity of the Imperial War Museum, I felt it was too much and a little too masculine in that women were under represented. And Miniminx? She was adamant that Britain at War told the story better, was more to the point and more interesting and engaging for her.

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1 Comment to “London museum review: Britain at War v Imperial War Museum”

  1. [...] my review of the Imperial War Museum v Britain at War which compares the vast rooms of the museum to the cavernous cellars of the exhibition under London [...]

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