Churchill War Rooms

In Museums on November 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Having recently moved to the big smoke, I’ve started hitting up London Museums. This was an absolutely epic start:

The Churchill War Rooms (part of the Imperial War Museum) are consistently one of the highest-rated attractions in London, but I have to say, I was a bit wary – they are expensive to visit. However, as a Museums Association member, I did get a pretty hefty discount – see? It *does* pay to be a nerd. Anyhoo – still not cheap in a city of free museums. This was one of those rare museums, however, that lives up to its steep entry fee.

You enter through an inconspicuous door at the foot of the steps to HM Treasury, among other anonymous governmental buildings. If you weren’t looking for the War Rooms, you might well miss them, although I believe that this was the original intention. Indeed, the war rooms were a secret project, begun in the run-up to all out war and a heavily guarded secret, from whence Prime Minister Churchill and his war cabinet (a coalition, many of whom were doubling up on roles – Churchill himself took on the roles of PM and Minister of Defense. AND he organised the Christmas Party!) ran Britain and a good portion of allied Europe from. These are the rooms from which orders were issued and battles directed. It is impossible to recreate an atmosphere like that, but the Chruchill War Rooms do an amazing job of preserving a sense of importance, of desperation, and of hard bloody graft. It will almost certainly send shivers down your spine.

The main interpretation for the restored (or in the case of the Cabinet Room, untouched) rooms is an audioguide. I really don’t like audioguides – I’m sure I’ve ranted about that somewhere before – but these audioguides were fairly decent. The snippets were short and entertaining, and you had the option to hear more detail, or stick with soundbites. That said, I do HATE audioguides, so this is like saying that the best kind of broccoli is steamed (I actually love broccoli, but I know I’m in the minority). It does, however, keep the rooms atmospheric – the minimal interpretation does go some way to maintaining a kind of purity.

There are a few too many perspex walls around rooms for my liking, but ask yourself this: if you could jump on Churchill’s bed for a photo, would you? Thought so. The perspex is a necessary evil.

The  stand-out surprise of this place, however, is the Churchill Museum. about halfway through your visit, the museum segways into a very modern space with some very modern infographics, gadgets, and (god help us) AVs. I was convinced this would destroy the atmosphere of the war rooms – an unforgivable breaking down of the barrier between make-believe and the real world. It was crammed with people, as I feared, and very, very, modern.

It was absolutely great – the three of us spent over an hour in this room alone, just bumbling around, learning about Chartwell, Churchill, Clemmie, and more. German propaganda, British dissent, and my personal favourite, the Churchill Miscellany – I sat and watched this thing for about 15 minutes. Did you know he had a heart attack at the White House once? Me neither!!

I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Churchill War Rooms – I had a blast. There is even a coffee shop and cafe down there, and the gift shop is top notch for some non-tatty Britannic gifts. Think war posters reproduced on everything , plus chocolate. Also, sneakily, there’s a bit of museum history. I love learning how a museum came about, and the original letter from Michael Hestletine ordering the preservation of the war rooms is on display. Good move, Hesty. Good move.


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