To celebrate the re-opening of the Imperial War Museum London, MHM explores the artefacts, old and new, housed in the museum’s famous atrium. Designed by Foster + Partners, the new space includes terraced galleries rising up either side with new curated displays chronologically taking visitors through the history of conflict in Britain from 1914 to the present day.
Each level holds a different exhibition comprising a total of 400 newly selected and meticulously arranged objects. Level one focuses on the Second World War and features new objects including the wreckage of an X7 midget submarine and a Japanese Zero fighter, abandoned in 1943 and discovered in the jungle 50 years later.
The displays on level two deal with the world’s conflicts from 1945 to present day, the centrepiece of which is the powerfully symbolic casing of an atomic bomb. Other highlights include a prefab house exploring how Britain went about rebuilding itself after WWII, artworks and objects from the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, and a British Desert Hawk drone which sits opposite a Taliban Honda motorbike.
The final level presents some of the more unexpected curiosities in the IWM’s collections, including the wooden wheel thought to be for a new secret German aircraft when it was discovered in 1919, and packaging from a seized parcel containing parts for Saddam Hussein’s ‘super-gun’.
Here, we look at six of the larger objects displayed in the Witness to War exhibition on the ground floor of this impressive new atrium.
The fighter plane on display flew 57 combat missions during the Battle of Britain in 1940, accounting for two German aircraft, contributing to the destruction of two more, and damaging a further four. It was flown by 13 different pilots, only 6 of whom survived the Second World War. Its most frequent and successful pilot was Pilot Officer Noel Agazarian.
2. Baghdad Car
This car was destroyed by a suicide car bombing against the Mutanabbi Street book market in Baghdad, at a time of growing sectarian violence, almost four years after the US-led invasion of Iraq. It was later exported from Iraq and exhibited in the Netherlands, before being acquired by British Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller.
Deller toured the car across the United States, in company with a former American soldier and an Iraqi expatriate, as a means of starting conversations about Iraq.
It was donated to IWM and exhibited in the IWM London atrium in 2010.
3. Harrier jet
This British ground attack aircraft flew patrols over northern Iraq in the early 1990s and was twice deployed to Afghanistan. It was once sat in by David Cameron during a visit to Afghanistan in 2006, a few years before he became Prime Minister.
4. T-34 Tank
Tanks like this Soviet-designed T-34 played such a key role in the Second World War that they became symbolic of the Soviet war effort and were often used as war memorials. This particular tank was built in 1954 and later sold to the Egyptian Army. It was captured by the Israelis in 1973.
5. V2 Rocket
From September 1944, Germany deployed the V2 rocket against London and other cities in Europe. A rocket like the one on display struck the nearby Kennington Road/Lambeth Road crossroads on 4 January 1945, killing 43 people.
6. Naval guns
The left-hand gun (Gunbody No. 125) of the pair situated outside the Imperial War Museum was made by William Beardmore and mounted in HMS Ramillies in 1916. It was first fired in action against Turkish shore targets during operations in the Sea of Marmara in 1920. Apart from practice shoots, it was not fired again until 17 August 1940, when a British force bombarded Bardia in North Africa. HMS Ramillies also fired several salvoes during the Battle of Spartivento in 27 November 1940. The Italian warships were out of range and no hits were scored.
The right-hand gun (Gunbody No. 102) was mounted in HMS Resolution from 1915 to 1938. It saw service in the Sea of Marmara in 1920, but was not fired in anger again until 1944, and then in another ship, the monitor Roberts. On D-Day, HMS Roberts bombarded Houlgate Battery, east of Sword Beach. During the succeeding weeks her guns shelled enemy positions several miles inland near Caen.
This article appeared in issue 48 of Military History Monthly.