On November 11, 1918 at 11 AM French time, World War I officially ended (at least on paper). After that, the Allied nations commemorated November 11th as Armistice Day each year. However, after WWII, Great Britain and its Commonwealth changed the name of the holiday to Remembrance Day, in order to honor those who fought in every British war, not just WWI. Similarly, after WWII, the United States changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day.
On March 5, 1917, a little over a year before WWI ended, the British government created the National War Museum (soon afterwards renamed the Imperial War Museum) to preserve materials related to the War. After moving to several different homes, by 1936, it found its permanent location in a former hospital in London, that was originally built in 1814.
During WWII, the Imperial War Museum hid its most precious collections, in order to save them from potential bombs. This was a wise decision, because the Museum did lose a plane from its collection during a bombing raid. Once WWII ended, the Imperial War Museum began collecting items from that war as well, and then subsequent British wars, thereafter.
I had the opportunity to visit the Imperial War Museum of London back in 2010. Soon after my visit, the museum began a large renovation project, in anticipation of 2014, which was the centenary of the start of WWI. That means that much has probably changed since I was there. However, if the museum managed to get into my list of top 10 museums that I have ever visited, before the renovations even happened, then it must be even more amazing now.
In line with most of Britain’s government-owned museums, the Imperial War Museum has free admittance. Unsurprisingly, its primary focus is the two World Wars of the twentieth century. It has every imaginable type of object related to these wars. These includes the uniforms of each participating country, many of the weapons and airplanes used, British air raid lights, and much more. There is also a lot of important material housed in the museum that is not on display. For example, it has an extensive archive and library full of documents, books, photos, videos, oral histories, etc. related to Britain’s 20th and 21st century wars. Many of these items are digitized and searchable on the museum’s wonderful website.
New Zealander, Peter Jackson, is not only one of my heroes because he directed the Lord of the Rings films, but also because he helped restore a significant number of WWI film footage held at the Imperial War Museum. Using much of the museum’s film footage (which he colorized) and oral histories, Jackson created a documentary chronologically detailing the experiences of British soldiers during WWI. The 2018 documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is entirely comprised of audio and video footage taken from the Imperial War Museum. Here is a BBC video of Jackson explaining how he and his team restored deteriorating WWI film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cSXfKSRKz4.
A few more things should be noted about the Imperial War Museum. When I went in 2010, the top floor was entirely dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust. Additionally, I remember finding it odd that off in one random corner of the museum was the motorcycle that T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) rode and crashed to his death in 1935. Apparently, it was on loan at the museum from a private owner, so since 2013, is no longer displayed there. However, a blog post from the Imperial War Museum seems to say that, although the motorcycle that was on display did belong to Lawrence, it was not the actual one he rode when he died. That confuses me because I remember the sign at the museum saying that it was the one he rode at this death. Regardless, it is no longer there.
In addition to the museum in London, the Imperial War Museum operates several other related museums throughout Britain. These are the Churchill War Rooms (which I have seen and will hopefully write about in the future), the HMS Belfast (a WWII warship), the Imperial War Museum Duxford (Europe’s largest air museum), and the Imperial War Museum North (a smaller war museum in northern England).
Sources and Further Reading
BBC. “How Lord of the Rings Director Brought Colour to WWI.” YouTube, November 11, 2018. Video, 4:59. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cSXfKSRKz4 (accessed November 6, 2020).
“The History of IWM.” Imperial War Museum. https://www.iwm.org.uk/corporate/IWM-history (accessed on November 6, 2020).
“The Relevance of Lawrence of Arabia’s Bike.” IWM London is Changing. February 26, 2013. https://imperialwarmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/the-relevance-of-lawrence-of-arabias-bike/ (accessed on November 6, 2020).
They Shall Not Grow Old. Directed by Peter Jackson. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2018.
“World War I Ends.” History Channel. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/world-war-i-ends-2 (accessed on November 6, 2020).