Situated in the old Bethlehem Royal Hospital in Southwark, the Imperial War Museum London aims to tell the stories of people’s experiences of modern war.
As the IWM’s original commissioner, Sir Alfred Mond intended, the Imperial War Museum is “not a monument to military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice”. It’s easy to expect the museum to be something of a downer – war is not a happy subject – but many of the items on display reflect the hope and spirit of those living through conflicts and yearning for peace.
The museum covers the time period from World War One to current conflicts, and while the stories it relates can be difficult to hear, they’re also extremely important.
If you’re visiting IWM, London, there’s a lot to see and it can be difficult to know where to start – so here are some of the not-to-miss exhibits that you should be sure to look out for.
- V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket – These are hard to miss since they basically fill the museum’s main hall. These missiles were used during the air raids on London during the end of WW2. After the war, Wernher von Braun, the creator of the V2 was arrested and taken to America. His work as part of Operation Paperclip let him put his knowledge to a new use: helping towards the first moon landing.
- Letter to Lord Kitchener – At the beginning of World War 1, Lord Kitchener worked to organise a volunteer army and many of his recruitment posters became iconic. This letter came from a nine-year-old boy in Dublin. He offers his services to Lord Kitchener as a despatch rider. He says he can “ride jolley quick on my bicycle” and claims to be a good shot with a revolver.
- Auschwitz-Birkenau model – IWM’s award-winning Holocaust exhibition traces the Nazi persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews from 1933 to 1945. It provides extensive background information, such as how the political climate enabled Hitler’s rise to power and how his ideas spread, while photographs, diaries, toys and film tell the stories of people who lived through the Holocaust. The model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp demonstrates the terrible efficiency of the Nazi killing machine.
- Mine detector – Developed in 1942 by Polish inventor Josef Kosack, these devices were first used to clear Nazi minefields in El Alamein. The design was successful and doubled the speed at which the army could progress. It’s also a reminder of the ongoing problem with land mines in many parts of the world. It’s believed that more than 20 million land mines remain buried in Egypt. They have killed 3,000 people in the last 25 years and render about ten per cent of the country’s agricultural land unusable.
- French infantry uniform – This uniform, which was worn by a private of the French 5th Infantry, demonstrates how unprepared the world was for modern warfare. The bright red trousers were a symbol of heroism and bravery and politicians had resisted any changes to the outfit. Sadly, the colour made it easy for snipers to pick out targets.
Exhibitions and events
In addition to the permanent exhibits, IWM London offers a programme of changing exhibitions. These cover a variety of topics and include film, photography and art, current events and in-depth looks at specific topics.
Special events, such as private tours and author talks are also held throughout the year.
The Imperial War Museum London is open every day from 10am to 6pm, including most Bank Holidays, but it is closed on December 24th, 25th and 26th. Last admission is at 5:30pm.
There is a lot to see at the museum, so it’s recommended that you plan at least 2.5 hours for your visit, but with the cafe, special exhibits and extensive gift shop, it’s usually better to plan a half a day or more for the museum.
Museum shop and cafe
IWM London’s shop sells a variety of books, CDs and DVDs, which provide further information and insight about the themes and items on display within the museum. It also offers a selection of clothing, accessories, posters, stationery, souvenirs and gifts.
There’s also a range of items specifically for children, including games, toys, souvenirs, books and educational resource materials. The IWM’s online shop also offers the full range of products, so you can browse from the comfort of home or have something shipped to you.
If you’re feeling hungry during your visit to IWM London, be sure to visit the on-site cafe. It serves delicious seasonal foods, including stone-baked sourdough pizzas, burgers from a charcoal grill, salads and specialty sandwiches. There’s also a tea room, which is open during peak times and provides a relaxing space to eat. It serves a variety of teas, cakes and sandwiches.
The IWM London is located at Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ.
The nearest Underground station is Lambeth North, but it is closed for lift replacement works until February 2017. The next closest stations are Waterloo (on the Bakerloo, Jubilee and Northern lines) and Elephant & Castle (on the Bakerloo and Northern Lines). Both are about 10-15 minutes away on foot.
There are several local bus routes, which stop just outside the museum. These include the 3, 12, 53, 148, 159, 344, 360, 453 and C10.
If you feel like cycling to the IWM, the closest Cycle Hire docking stations are on Lambeth Road and St George’s Road.
There is limited street parking near the museum and free parking is available for blue badge holders – although these are also limited and must be booked two working days in advance. There are also NCP car parks nearby in Waterloo and Elephant & Castle.
If you’re driving to the museum, please note that it is located within the Congestion Charge zone.
If you’re looking for hotels near the Imperial War Museum London, the Park Grand Kensington is an excellent option. This comfortable boutique hotel is just four miles from the museum and with public transportation, travel time is just over half an hour.
There are actually five Imperial War Museums locations in the UK, IWM North is in Manchester and there’s IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire. Two other IWM branches can be found within London and are just a short distance from the IWM London:
- Churchill War Rooms – Located just off Whitehall, the Churchill War Rooms are about 1.5 miles from IWM London. This historic underground complex housed the government’s command centre throughout the second world war. Visitors can explore the secret underground bunker and see the cabinet war rooms. There’s also a museum that tells the story of Winston Churchill’s life.
- HMS Belfast – Just upstream from Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast is a Royal Navy light cruiser that’s permanently moored on the Thames. It’s now a museum that shows visitors what life is like at sea for military personnel. It’s also about 1.5 miles away from the IWM London.
Other local attractions include:
- SEA LIFE London Aquarium (0.7 miles away)
- The London Eye (0.7 miles away)
- The London Dungeon (0.7 miles away)
- The Southbank Centre (0.8 miles away)
- The National Theatre (0.9 miles away)
- The Houses of Parliament (1 mile away)
- Tate Modern (1.2 miles away)
- Shakespeare’s Globe (1.2 miles away)