An exhibition is not always the best way to absorb information. This is especially true if the subject is as serious as the biggest war in history and the genocide that took place as part of it.
With their new Second World War and Holocaust galleries, which opened in late October, the Imperial War Museum seems to be aware of this.
And although emphasis is very much on size – the galleries cost £30.7 million and span vast amounts of floor space – there is also some recognition that going big has its downsides.
‘It can be a little bit over-whelming really to try and understand how millions of people were mobilised for war,’ Kate Clements, curator of the Second World War Galleries, told MHM. In response to this, the museum has emphasised the importance of personal stories as a way of accessing major wartime events.
‘If you dig down to that individual level,’ Clements added, ‘it does help visitors relate to what they’re seeing and make sense of it all.’
The gallery on the war is broken up into six sections. It starts off at home, quite literally. A large replica of the ground floor of a typical 1940s British house has been constructed, to give visitors – perhaps particularly younger ones – a sense of what life would have been like for ordinary citizens during the conflict.
Clements has left her own very personal mark on this house. During construction, it was decided that some family portraits were needed to make it seem more homely and authentic. Clements suggested some of her own.
‘My grandparents’ wedding photo is hanging over the mantlepiece and my other grandparents, Rex and Peggy Cleaver, are on the writing desk,’ she explained. ‘Grandad is there in his RAF uniform and my grandma is there as a land girl. It was really nice to be able to include them.’
The gallery then expands in scale to reflect the widening of the conflict to a truly global one in 1941, when both Russia and the United States were dragged into the war within the space of six months.
Symbolising the American entry is a chunk of USS Arizona. Bombed by Japanese aircraft during Pearl Harbor, Arizona’s ammunition stores were hit, causing her to explode and burn for four days. The loss of life was truly horrendous – out of the 1,512 crew on board, 1,177 were killed in the calamity.
And although it may look like a large chunk of metal – which it is – the artefact is also an early example of how the museum skilfully uses one fragment of the war to illustrate a wider episode.
This is the first time a piece of the wreckage of Arizona has ever gone on display outside the United States, a reminder of the work that has gone on behind the scenes to produce the whole exhibition.
As well as delving deep into its own archives, the IWM has accepted donations, made purchases, and acquired new items from around the globe.
Later sections illustrate the increasing dysfunctionality of the Axis war effort, which is contrasted with the growing strength and unity of the Allies. There is an impressive and intimidating array of Soviet propaganda images, works of art in themselves, as well as a glass case with the original uniforms of five soldiers – one from each beach of Operation Overlord: the opening of the Western Front by the Americans, Canadians, and British that Stalin had so long demanded.
The ultimate defeat of the Nazi empire is represented by a large stone eagle lodged in the ground, reminiscent of images from shattered Berlin in 1945, and surely one of the gallery’s most arresting installations.
A final room in this gallery acts as an epilogue. It looks at the aftermath of the war, both in Britain, with the 1945 general election campaign, and abroad, with events such as the partition of India.
A beautiful palla, or wedding dress, is displayed here. It belonged to Raminder Singh, who married an Indian war hero named Parkash in April 1947 and wore the dress on that occasion.
As Sikhs, they had to flee their home following the partition, feeling unsafe in the new Islamic country of Pakistan. Raminder’s dress makes for a memorable contrast from the usual Bren guns and bullet-riddled helmets.
Before leaving the gallery on the war, however, visitors will not fail to notice the V1 flying bomb, which has been suspended in a gap between the two floors, linking the galleries together.
And the link is appropriate: it was slave labourers who built the V1, which went on to terrorise civilians in Britain in the final years of the war. But it also relates to the Holocaust, as Jewish prisoners were used to build the tunnels in which the weapon was constructed.
Use of physical space
Despite the connection with the exhibition downstairs, the Holocaust Gallery has its own identity. Another vast space, it is brightly but tastefully lit in creams and blues, and each room within it is both spacious and yet crammed with detail.
In truth, there is probably too much here. But this is partly intentional, too. As the IWM has said, ‘No visitors will see the same selection of images or have the same experiences in this place. It is to convey the vast range of people and cultures that made up what the Nazis crudely identified as one.’
Again, the collections of personal items are impressive. There is the rare birth certificate of Eva Clarke, one of the very few people born in a concentration camp who survived past the liberation. Also on display is the set of headphones worn at the Nuremberg Trials by Hans Frank, head of the German Government of Poland during the War and one of the Holocaust’s most sadistic perpetrators.
There is also a section of concentration camp barracks likely to be the last remaining part of Velten, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen – on public display for the first time in Britain.
Later in this gallery, physical space is used quite daringly. In the room dealing with deportations to the labour and death camps, visitors are unknowingly directed on a route that mirrored those of the wartime arrivals.
Visitors have the choice of turning left or right. The left leads to a small, dark, dead-end room, which discusses the many arrivals who were deemed of no use to the Nazis and killed immediately. Those fortunate enough to avoid this fate were instead selected for forced labour. Visitors turning to the right are introduced to a section on this subject, where the V1 once again comes into view.
The very last room is small and box-like, reminiscent of an antechamber to a court room. This is appropriate because it discusses the Nuremberg Trials, the noble if flawed attempt by the Allies to bring some kind of earthly justice to the supernatural horror of the Nazi crimes.
The Second World War and the Holocaust are two very challenging subjects. Some visitors may find it all a bit too much to take in during a single visit. In fact, the galleries are probably enhanced by multiple viewings.
But credit where credit is due to the Imperial War Museum. The galleries are not too Britain-heavy. It is not all Churchill and Dunkirk and the Blitz, in other words, as can sometimes be the case when it comes to Britain’s attitude to the Second World War.
There is some of this, of course, such as with the 1940s house, but it is well balanced out with artefacts and human stories from around the globe, both from other superpowers – China, Japan, and the United States – and smaller countries, such as New Zealand and the Philippines, all caught up in the crossfire.
In other words, this is no provincial exhibition. It is global in its scope. When you walk around it, you feel like you could be in any country in the world.
The pre-existing World War One galleries are still below all of this. So with the opening of these new exhibitions, after half a decade in development, it feels like the satisfying completion of a trilogy.
This surely cements the IWM’s status as the foremost institution at which to learn about the calamities of the last century. •
You can listen to the full interview with Kate Clements on a recent episode of The PastCast.
Open 10am to 6pm Wednesday to Sunday Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ Visit the IWM website for more information +44 (0) 20 7416 5000 Images: Imperial War Museum.