The Imperial War Museum houses one of the best collections of military hardware and artefacts you can see, a compelling record of modern warfare which places the impact of conflict on everyday lives at its centre.
- See the huge, imposing 15-inch naval guns built for the first world war which guard the front of the building.
- Look up in the atrium to see an iconic Battle of Britain Spitfire, suspended as if in flight above your head.
- Visit the permanent Holocaust exhibition and reflect on the first-hand testimonies of those who suffered horrific persecution.
What to See and Do
For sheer wow factor walking into the central atrium of the Imperial War Museum with its 25-meter high space takes some beating. Here you will immediately understand the scale of some of the most iconic hardware of modern warfare. Among the exhibits in this area are a Battle of Britain Spitfire, a V2 rocket and a Hawker Harrier suspended from the ceiling. This is a museum entrance designed for impact and will make you want to see the other exhibits even more.
First World War Gallery
The first world war and the black and white grainy images of the trenches still have the power to both enthral and terrify one hundred years on. The Imperial War Museum dedicates a permanent exhibition charting those horrific years from 1914 to 1918. Accompanied by touch screen interactive displays, visitors can view over 1300 objects including planes, tanks, uniforms, artefacts, diaries and poignant personal letters detailing the lives of both the soldiers and civilians. Walk through a replica section of a trench to see how the soldiers at the front lived.
Turning Points Exhibition
This permanent exhibition on the 1st floor charts the years between 1934 and 1945, from the point the second world war begins to loom through to its conclusion. There are many poignant personal artefacts to be seen including a trunk sent ahead by Jewish parents whose children had already escaped to Britain. The parents died in Auschwitz after war broke out and they were unable to leave Germany. Further exhibits include the remains of a Japanese Zero fighter plane located on a Pacific island fifty years after the end of the war.
Lord Ashcroft Collection
This collection tells the stories of the incredible bravery of men, women and children in time of war. There are over 250 personal stories of bravery, accompanied by photographs, film, artefacts and artwork. You will also be able to view the world’s largest collection of Victoria Cross medals, Britain’s highest decoration for valour.
There is also a large collection of George Cross medals as the exhibition recounts stories of incredible bravery such as Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC who saved others by throwing himself on to a grenade in Afghanistan to take the blast.
This can be particularly tough viewing, but it is a must-see exhibition. With first-hand recounts of one of the worst atrocities ever seen, this is a moving experience though not one recommended for children under 14 years of age. Artefacts, posters, photographs, documents and film recall a very dark period in Europe’s recent history.
Did you know: (4 interesting facts!)
- The idea for the museum was first proposed in 1917, during the first world war. It was intended to record the effort and sacrifice of Britain and the Empire for that specific war.
- For over 40 years the Imperial War Museum’s collection of films and archival footage has been used by television producers to make documentaries which have furthered the public’s understanding of war and its effects. Landmark programs where the museum’s films were used include ‘The Great War’ and ‘The World at War’.
- The Imperial War Museum holds a significant collection of art, consisting of paintings, posters, drawings and prints. This includes much of the artwork commissioned by the government to record both world war one and world war two. The museum has also commissioned artists to record more recent conflicts, as well as peacekeeping duties.
- Although the Imperial War Museum in London is its most well-known site, the museum as a group contains four other sites. This includes the Imperial War Museum North based in Manchester, the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast in London, plus Europe’s largest air museum at Duxford.
- March 1917 – War Cabinet approves proposal for National War Museum from Sir Alfred Mond MP.
- June 1920 – Museum opened at Crystal Palace by King George VI
- November 1924 – Move to smaller location in the Western Galleries of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington.
- July 1936 – Duke of York opens the museum in its new location at Lambeth Road, where it remains today.
- September 1940 – November 1946 Closed for the war with vulnerable collections stored outside of London.
- 1966 – First major expansion to the museum since its relocation to its current home.
- 1967 – Museum acquires the iconic naval guns which are sited on the approach to the building.
- 1986 – First phase of major renovation starts, taking three years to complete, including the centrepiece atrium.
- 2000 – Final part of three-phase development of Southwark building completed and includes Holocaust Exhibition.
- 2004 – Museum reopens after a £40m redesign
Facilities and Accessibility
There is step-free access at the museum’s west entrance, which is round to the right of the building if approaching the front of the museum. Wheelchairs can be hired without any fee and all the lifts are wheelchair accessible.
To reserve a parking spot designated for blue badge holders it is best to make a reservation a couple of days prior to your visit. Accessible toilets can be found on levels 0 to 3 in the museum, with a changing place facility on level 0.
Subtitles are shown on audiovisual displays while audio guides and large print e-books are available for the first world war galleries. The museum has a shop offering a variety of items to remember your visit, while the cafe provides a wide selection of seasonal foods.