Last week we toured the fresh-look Imperial War Museum and provided our thoughts on the new layout. This week, we returned to review the much heralded First World War galleries. Though the crowds have died down a little, visitors can still expect a short queue to get into the museum and timed ticket entry for the galleries, but this staggered entry does a good job of ensuring it never becomes overcrowded.
The First World War galleries are filled with artefacts. Weapons, personal diaries, propaganda posters, clothing and much more combine to create an information-packed display.
Most people know about the brutality of the Great War. The museum does not shy away from this, with accounts of chemical weapon attacks and displays of crude clubs fashioned for use in close combat trench warfare. But it also steps back for a wider context including the unrest in Ireland and the women’s rights movement, and how these huge issues were put on hold when war broke out.
These galleries are not just about the British war effort, a particular strength that we admired. They recognise the contributions of all Commonwealth nations in the war, including over 1.5 million Indian troops who were essential for the war effort. The displays also remind us that extreme measures were taken on both sides, including the slaughter of civilians by German troops and the internment of anyone of even vaguely German descent who was resident in the UK.
Race and gender inequality are not overlooked either, with comments on how the British were reticent to enlist black troops, and women had to fight their corner to be able to help out in the war effort. Considering the heated and renewed debate around whether Britain should have got involved in the war, it would have been nice if this wasn’t simply alluded to and discussed in more detail.
These galleries offer so much to see, including videos and even a mocked-up trench to walk through, that even 90 minutes were not enough to see everything. Our only minor quibble was that some of the labelling could have been elevated from ground level to make for easier reading. But overall, this is a brilliant, objective and balanced look back at one of history’s most pivotal conflicts.
The First World War galleries are a permanent display as part of the newly re-opened Imperial War Museum. Admission is free.