Its exhibits may be disheartening and some artefacts disturbing, but a visit to the Imperial War Museum is not only educational, but necessary as well. By shedding light on some of the darkest periods in human history, the Imperial War Museum manages to document some of the many unfortunate wars and conflicts in both the past and modern times, so visitors will leave the museum seeing the world in an entirely different light.

The Imperial War Museum was originally opened to the public in 1920 when it was located in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill. Since then, the museum has been moved, relocated and re-furbished countless times, until it was eventually moved to its current location in the former Bethlem Royal Hospital on Lambeth Road.

The Imperial War Museum is actually a “family” of five different museums which include the Churchill War Rooms, the HMS Belfast, the Imperial War Museum North in Trafford (Greater Manchester), and the Imperial War Museum Duxford (near Cambridge).

Its many exhibits cover everything from the First and Second World Wars to 9/11, as well as the wars in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Korea, and much more. The museum also has a specific focus on conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth, and even has exhibits covering the role of women in Britain during war times.

The Imperial War Museum also hosts a variety of free talks and temporary galleries throughout the year, as well as interactive displays for children and even adults to enjoy which include virtual books, videos, and historic games.

The Imperial War Museum, BAE. By Harrier Ian The Imperial War Museum, Lancaster bomber, By Ian
The Imperial War Museum, cannons. By PSParrot The Imperial War Museum, interior. By Martin Stitchener The Imperial War Museum, parachute pigeon. By Richard Lee

Imperial War Museum Highlights

Before even entering the building, visitors will be greeted with 15-inch naval guns at the museum's entrance, and then enter the spectacular Central Hall which features tanks, guns and aircraft hanging from its ceiling. The museum has many permanent galleries, some of which include the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Extraordinary Heroes and Secret War; however, the Holocaust exhibition is perhaps the most daunting, and is a must-see for any visitor.

There's also an exhibition on “Crimes Against Humanity” which educates visitor on the horrors and atrocities of various genocide events around the world, and it also covers the early days of MI5, MI6 and the Special Forces.

If you're lucky, during your visit the museum may even be hosting a free talk so you can speak to people who experienced a conflict firsthand; (in the past, the museum has brought in London residents who were evacuated during the Blitz bombings).

Besides the numerous displays, exhibitions and events happening in the museum, some of the many fascinating items you can expect to see at the Imperial War Museum include:

  • A piece of the Berlin Wall
  • A small pair of children's shoes from one of the liberated Nazi concentration camps
  • A Snatch Land Rover from Iraq
  • World War II propaganda posters
  • A suicide vest from a “would-be” bomber
  • Collections of some of the first nuclear missiles
  • An Argentine operating table from the Falklands
  • Recreations of a World War I trench
  • The V-1 and V-2 rockets which were used by Germany to bomb London
  • A cockpit of a Lancaster
  • One of the castings from “Little Boy” (also known as the first A-bomb)
  • Videos of interviews with Holocaust survivors
  • A damaged and twisted window frame from the World Trade Centre
  • A bronze eagle which once stood on the roof of the Reichstag

Special Tips

  • If you want to see all that there is to see in the Imperial War Museum, be prepared to do a lot of reading, as each display is packed full of paragraph upon paragraph of information.
  • Some areas of the museum lack proper signage, so try to keep your wits about you when walking through the exhibitions as it's easy to get lost