The Imperial War Museum exceeded my expectations - and they were pretty high. The trench experience, which was my main reason for going (along with the Cecil Beaton exhibit) was unfortunately closed, but even so I was completely blown away. The exhibits that were on included the London Homefront, the Holocaust and Cecil Beaton’s Theater of War, and I was so in love with the way they were curated. There was nothing of the minimalist sterile presentation so common in US museums - the showcases were three-dimensional, tactile and comprised of all different media. There were documentary videos, wartime radio one could listen to by adjusting the dials, models (English wartime homes, a huge and explicit Auschwitz) and even a small bomb shelter one could climb into. A sort of historical experience Gesamkunstwerk, and none of it felt gimmicky or infantilizing. I especially liked the way the historical artifacts were displayed - all together and relating to one another within a showcase instead of on their own with a plain explanatory plaque each. The presentation confronted the viewer with a piece of a person or moment that it was attached to, not just a thing safely removed to a distance of decades and existing for academic analysis only. This was especially effective in the Holocaust exhibit, with the Auschwitz model surrounded by a staggering volume of victims’ shoes and bits of broken personal possessions - spectacles, broken bits of pottery, small coins.
And of course the Cecil Beaton exhibit was brilliant. A lot bigger than I expected, very comprehensive and informative, and showed a ton of his work I have never seen. It’s hard to imagine Cecil Beaton as a war photographer, but it is obvious in this exhibit why he saw this body of work as his best and most significant.
I highly recommend that anyone in and near London get themselves to the IWM to see all these exhibits. Meanwhile, I’m off to buy a steamer trunk to fit all the damn books I keep buying.