Article by Kathryn Robinson. Edited and researched by Rob Russell.
Visitors to the Imperial War Museum in south London today will observe a vast array of exhibits from many different wars, affecting not just Britain but countries of the Empire and then the Commonwealth. Objects displayed in the museum include aircrafts, tanks, guns, printed sources and audio-visual material. How ironic, then, that this museum was originally created to be a warning from history from the ‘war to end all wars’: the Great War! Despite this contrast, the museum is one of the best examples of history being presented for the public and is well worth a visit.
The Imperial War Museum was created as a result of the First World War and plans for its creation began in 1917. Politicians and architects wanted the museum to serve a variety of purposes. Firstly, to be a ‘morale boost’ for a country that was growing in its discontent about the impact the war was having both on the soldiers fighting on the front line and on society back home. It was hoped that this project would boost both morale and patriotism to persevere with the war effort. In the early stages of planning, it was written in Cabinet papers that faulty or failed equipment or designs should not be exhibited in the museum. This was partly due to this reason of being a morale boost and partly because it was doubtful whether relatives of the dead or injured would want to see war equipment which may have caused their loved ones harm. Whatever the reason, it is perhaps worth considering at this stage what the role of governments in the creation of museums should be. It’s true that perhaps government officials – as we have just seen – can have an influence on the material shown to the public but they can also provide museums with funding. Without this funding and donations from the general public, the Imperial War Museum would simply not exist.
Secondly, it was widely recognised that this project – along with other similar forms of commemoration of the First World War – needed to record the important events of the war for future generations to gain an understanding of it. Recording the First World War in this way would mean that visitors to the museum who would not have any direct experience of the conflict could learn about its importance and role in history.
It’s clear that in the immediate years after its creation and indeed behind the motivation for creating the museum in the first place, there was an obvious desire to place the First World War in the public eye. But how has this museum managed to stay in the public eye for so long, especially since it is nearly a century since the First World War began?
The first reason is that the museum’s inclusion of artefacts from other conflicts in more modern memory ensures that it keeps within the consciousness of its visitors. It’s quite a bittersweet notion that history in the public eye is heightened as a result of more conflicts being exhibited.
Secondly, and less depressingly, the museum’s expansion to different sites both within London and to other cities across the country allows people from all over the country to access the history that it shows. Along with the site in South London, there are many other buildings under the remit of the Imperial War Museum such as HMS Belfast and the Cabinet War Rooms elsewhere in London and also in other places such as Cambridgeshire and Manchester. This ensures that this history can be viewed regardless of regional boundaries and that is for the public of Great Britain as a whole, rather than just for those in London. Similarly, because the admission to the museum is free, it can attract people regardless of their socio-economic situation to come and view history. These two factors ensure that the history in the museum is made public in the greatest sense of the word.
Finally, looking away from Britain exclusively, the fact that the museum contains the contributions of other countries to wars that Britain was directly involved in and those conflicts which it was not involved with stops the history the museum shows from being ‘British-centric’. In 1953, the aims of the museum changed to include all military conflicts which involved Britain or Commonwealth countries since August 1914: the start of the First World War. This ensures that the history of the museum is kept in the public eye as it doesn’t offend people because the contributions of their countries aren’t included and because visitors can learn more about conflicts which they may not otherwise know about.
So, from commemoration of the First World War to education about subsequent conflicts, the remit of the Imperial War Museum has ensured that it has become an important example of history in the public eye. Perhaps in some way, it alienates some of its visitors to the concept of war and it’s certainly unsettling to visit and take in the number of wars that have occurred since 1914. Most importantly, however, it has stood the test of time and while the Imperial War Museum exists, military history and the history of war more generally will be made more accessible to more people. This surely can’t be a bad thing.
- The Imperial War Museum has almost 11 million objects within its collections spread out across the differing sites.
- In total across all of its branches the Imperial War Museum has over 2 million visitors each year.
- The museum was originally house in Crystal Palace before moving to its current home in 1936.