Imperial War Museum

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.

This is a Nazi plane, a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, at the Imperial War Museum in London.

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:

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. (accessed November 6, 2020).

“The History of IWM.” Imperial War Museum. (accessed on November 6, 2020).

“The Relevance of Lawrence of Arabia’s Bike.” IWM London is Changing. February 26, 2013. (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. (accessed on November 6, 2020).

Stratford-upon-Avon and The Globe Theatre

Every April 23rd is Shakespeare Day, which is a day to commemorate the famous British playwright.  William Shakespeare’s fans chose that day because he died on April 23, 1616, and may have also been born on that day in 1564 (his baptism was April 26, so it is possible).  Although the English used in his plays may not be the easiest to understand, his works have endured throughout the centuries.  Perhaps the main reason for this is because the themes found within his plays continue to remain relevant up to the present day.  Additionally, Shakespeare does a wonderful job of portraying humanity and placing you inside the minds of both villains and heroes.  Finally, whether you realize or not, Shakespearean created many phrases and words that have now entered into the English language.

If Shakespeare fans want to learn more about The Bard, they should visit his birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon, which is about a two-hour drive away from London.  Stratford-upon-Avon is a town along the River Avon, which is why “upon-Avon” is a part of its name.  This distinguishes it from other places in England with the name of Stratford.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace Home at Stratford-upon-Avon.

At Stratford-upon-Avon, you can visit Shakespeare’s boyhood home, his wife’s home, and the home of his daughter and son-in-law.  You can also see the Edward VI School, which is believed to have been Shakespeare’s school.  With the exception of the school, which is still active, the homes were restored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust still maintains the homes and offers tours of them to visitors.  When I visited, the tour guides wore 16th century garb, and at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Home, even performed scenes from two of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s supposed school, the Edward VI School at Stratford-upon-Avon.

At the home of Anne Hathaway, who was Shakespeare’s wife (not the actress of the same name), the tour guides described why Shakespeare and Anne got married.  About eight years younger than Anne, 18-year-old William had to marry Anne after impregnating her.  They ultimately had 3 children.  However, Shakespeare ended up living in London to work as an actor and playwright, while his family remained at Stratford-upon-Avon.

This is the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife.

The home of Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, is called Hall’s Croft, and was the largest home in town.  Because Susanna’s husband, John Hall, was a doctor, the top floor displayed medical instruments from the 16th century.  They looked frightening!

Shakespeare fans should also try to visit the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.  The original Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, burned down.  However, in 1997, a new Globe Theatre was built, with the attempt to make it look as much like the original as possible.  It is a circular, open-air theatre, and stands near the foundations of the original Globe Theatre (another building is on the original location).  The Globe Theatre currently provides historic tours of its building, where tour guides explain what a theater experience would have been like in Shakespeare’s day.  According to my tour guide, poorer people could not afford the seats, so paid an entry fee of a penny to stand in the middle of the theatre.  My tour guide mentioned how that would have been a smelly experience, because people hardly showered then, and because people used the middle of the theatre as the public toilet.  The original Globe Theatre had woodchips on the ground, which helped to cover up the litter, but the new Globe Theatre does not replicate this feature, due to fire hazards.

This is the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames in London. The Globe Theatre is the circular, white building on the left.

Today, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre performs plays at the Globe Theatre during the warmer months of the year.  Visitors may purchase tickets to watch the play standing, just like the lower classes did during Shakespeare’s day.  However, that means that if it rains, those are the people who will get wet.

These are the seats at the Globe Theatre.

Because the Globe Theatre is currently closed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Globe is currently streaming recordings of its older performances online:

You can also take a virtual tour of the theatre:

As Shakespeare says in Act 2, Scene 7 of As You Like It, “We have seen better days.”  However, hopefully, by the end of this year, the Coronavirus will listen to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, and will have “Melted into thin air.”

Shakespeare is buried at Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon. It might be hard to see in this photo, but you should look up his epitaph.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Globe Theatre.” (accessed May 1, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “William Shakespeare.” (accessed May 1, 2020).

“Shakespeare Phrases.” Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. (accessed May 1, 2020).

Shakespeare Trust Birthplace. (accessed May 1, 2020).

Shakespeare’s Globe. (accessed May 1, 2020).

The British Museum

The British Museum in London is undoubtedly ranked as one the best museums in the world, containing approximately 8 million artifacts.  It was founded in 1753 as the first free, national museum.  Its enormous collection contains items from every continent in the world except for Antarctica.  This is largely in part to the fact that the “sun never set on the British Empire” during the 19th century, meaning that Britain controlled so much of the world then, that the sun was always shining on one part of its Empire.  Because of this, the British were easily able to acquire artifacts from most of the world. Additionally, the Brits were pioneers in archaeology, so a large portion of the British Museum’s collection comes from them.

I had the privilege of spending a few hours at the British Museum in 2009.  Unfortunately, I probably saw less than ¼ of the collection because it is so large.  Entrance into the Museum is free, as are the different tours that they offer, including a tour of the Museum’s highlights.  Additionally, there are audio tour headsets available in 10 different languages that people can pay to use.  Perhaps this is no longer the case, but when I was at the Museum 11 years ago, they offered free tours of specific sections of the Museum.  I did tours of the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Assyrian collections.

Perhaps the most famous object at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone.  French soldiers in Egypt found this stele fragment and took it in 1799, but soon surrendered it to the British after experiencing a defeat under Napoleon.  The stone is important because it helped scholars discover how to decipher the long-forgotten Egyptian hieroglyphs, ultimately allowing us to learn more about Ancient Egypt.  Since the Rosetta Stone was created during the Ptolemaic period, when Greece oversaw Egypt, three scripts were written on it (all saying the same thing): Ancient Greek, Demotic (a form of Egyptian script), and hieroglyphic.  Scholars already knew how to read Ancient Greek, so that helped them with deciphering the other two scripts.  Over the years, Egypt has requested the return of the Rosetta Stone to its native land.

This is the Rosetta Stone. Unfortunately, my Kodak film camera did not work well inside the British Museum.

Since many famous objects at the British Museum came there through war or theft, many countries frequently ask for the return of their artifacts.  For example, many of the statues at the Parthenon in Athens are replicas of the originals at the British Museum, so Greece would like them returned.  Similarly, the British army essentially stole the Benin Bronzes from Benin City, Nigeria in 1897, so Nigeria would like them back.  Although I do not believe that countries should be robbed of their artifacts, I do see two positive results of what the British did.  First, the British Museum allows you to view the history of many different cultures all in one place, which is an experience that is not easy to replicate elsewhere.  Second, the British may have helped preserve artifacts that would have otherwise been destroyed later.  For example, in 2015, the group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destroyed many ancient artifacts in Iraq.  This included using a sledgehammer to destroy a lamassu (Assyrian winged bull).  Fortunately, the British Museum has several lamassu that used to be located in the same area as the destroyed one.  A very disturbing video of the 2015 destruction of Iraqi artifacts can be found Here.

These lamassu (Assyrian winged bulls) were taken from Nimrud, near modern-day Mosul, Iraq (ancient Nineveh), and brought to the British Museum. They were believed to protect entrances. Here is a painting of the archaeologists trying to transport it.

In addition to world-class exhibits, the British Museum also has study rooms (where you can request to study a specific object from the collection), an archive, and a library complementing the collection.  Britain’s national library used to be a part of the Museum, but it became so large that it had to move into its own space.  While the British Library was still a part of the British Museum, famous people used to study there, including Sherlock Holmes’ author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the exiled Karl Marx.

The British Museum has a nice gift shop full of items reflecting the Museum’s collections.  Although it is more fun to browse in person, it is also viewable online.  Unfortunately, my time in the gift shop was cut short due to a situation that I hope is not common at the Museum.  As I was looking at some tiny knick knacks of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, an Eastern European man twice my age came up to me.  He said, “I can buy those for you.”  I think I looked at him confused and said that I did not want them.  He then said, “Yeah. What would you do with those?  They’re garbage.  Throw them down the toilet.  I can get you something else.”  By then, I was too creeped out, so I nervously smiled and escaped from the gift shop.  Perhaps my American flag bag made me a target, but I am not sure.

Thankfully, if you are never able to make a physical trip to the British Museum, you can still view an enormous portion of the collection online.  Amazingly, some objects can even be viewed at 360 degrees, and then downloaded to be printed on a 3D printer:  You can also learn more about the Museum’s objects from a series called A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was done by former Museum director, Neil MacGregor.  In 2010, he recorded 100 lectures on 100 different objects from the Museum that best represent the history of the world.  This project is available as a podcast and also on the BBC’s website.

This panel is one of the many Lachish Reliefs, which depict the Assyrian siege of the Judean city of Lachish by King Sennacherib. This scene shows the Judean prisoners prostrating themselves to the Assyrian King.
These are Assyrian siege weapons found at Lachish, Israel, which corroborates with the Assyrian Lachish Reliefs as well as the Biblical account about the siege found in 2 Chronicles 32:9. This photo is from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

“The British Museum.” Sketchfab. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Collecting Histories.” The British Museum. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Collection Online.” The British Museum. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Rosetta Stone.” The British Museum.  (accessed February 27, 2020).

“A History of the World in 100 Objects.” BBC. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Video: ISIS Destroys Centuries Old Iraqi Artifacts.” Al Arabiya. (accessed February 27, 2020).