Exhibition Review: Outbreak 1939 @ Imperial War Museum

By Nicolas Chinardet Last edited 113 months ago
Exhibition Review: Outbreak 1939 @ Imperial War Museum

courtesy of Imperial War Museum
On Sunday 3 September 1939 at 11.15am, the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced on the airwaves that Britain and France were at war with Germany, or, as he put it pithily in his pocket diary, on show in a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum: "war declared".

Also on display are copies of the declaration of war and various elements of administrative minutia that unexpectedly take the start of the Second World War out of the textbooks and firmly place it in the tangible world.

A selection of newspaper front pages, and audio and video extracts, together with more personal items create a detailed picture of the first few weeks of the war and how they changed every aspects of people's lives.

Some of these objects are simply amazing to behold and testify to the amount of planning undertaken; from the "Mickey Mouse Respirator" (a colourful gas mask for children) to luminous black-out buttons or a picture showing a cow painted with white stripes for enhanced visibility should it stray on the road at night.

That cow was lucky by the way, since an estimated 2 million domestic animals were destroyed during the first few days of the war.

There is a lot to see and read. The exhibits, grouped by themes, are presented in a pleasant cream-painted, Formica-lined space, although some areas seem crammed with objects while other parts of the room feel empty and rather redundant. The labelling system is sadly rather confusing: one often has to guess which object the text is referring to.

Perhaps surprisingly, this very informative exhibition leaves the visitor with the impression of a certain amount of levity in people's approach to the conflict, as if it wasn't all that serious after all. Or perhaps this is just an early manifestation of the Blitz Spirit.

Outbreak 1939 runs until 6 August 2010 at the Imperial War Museum, London. Free admission. An attentive visit will last about 2 hours.

Last Updated 24 August 2009