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I visited the Churchill War Rooms many years ago and since my memories of it were hazy, I thought I’d check it out and see how it had changed. I remembered looking in on the old rooms and had a general feeling that it was a pretty great day out.
I also remembered it as being quite small and cramped, so I only left myself an afternoon to visit. This has certainly changed. The first thing I would say to people thinking of visiting the Churchill War Rooms is: leave plenty of time! You could easily spend a whole day there now if you like to be thorough in museums – I had to rush through the last few things to get through it all before closing time.
I must have visited before 2003 as all I remembered was the basic suite of the cabinet war rooms. In 2003, the attraction received major redevelopment. A new suite of rooms, which had been occupied by Churchill, his wife and other associates, was restored and opened to the public. Also an enormous museum about the life and work of Winston Churchill was opened and in 2006 it won the Council of Europe Museum Prize.
The war rooms now have an excellent audio guide which takes your through the different rooms and explains how they were used during the war. The bunker began to be constructed in 1938 and started to be used just before the outbreak of war in 1939.
The first room you come to is the Cabinet Room, where Churchill and his cabinet and military officials met to discuss strategy. The room was left exactly as it was when the war ended in 1945 and it’s fascinating to see Churchill’s leather chair still in pride of place in front of the world map.
During the first year of the war, Neville Chamberlain only used the room once, but after Churchill became Prime Minister, he said ’this is the room from which I will direct the war’ and subsequently had 115 cabinet meetings there.
Another interesting room is the Transatlantic Telephone Room which contained a secure telephone line which Churchill used to talk to President Roosevelt in Washington. This security was achieved with the use of a SIGSALY code-scrambler located in the basement of Selfridges, Oxford Street. I really wish this still existed and could be visited by the public!
There is a good section halfway through the route around the rooms, which gives a little more information about the way the rooms were used. There are some great objects on display as well as a map which shows how huge the bunker complex is – visited are only seeing a tiny portion of it!
There’s some great information about the ordinary people who worked in the war rooms and how they had to sleep in the sub-basement dormitory known as “the dock”. This small section is accompanied with some fantastic video interviews with former employees.
One interesting exhibit is a joke letter written by staff complaining of ‘acute shortages’ of ‘silk stockings, chocolates and cosmetics’.
In the light of the above, it is considered that the most expedient method of implementing the proposal in (c) would be the early dispatch of a mission to the U.S.A; a Force Commander has already been appointed, in anticipation of instructions.
At this point you enter the Churchill Museum, which is massive and includes lots of audiovisual displays, interactive elements, sounds and objects. It has been designed so that you do not start at the beginning of Churchill’s life, but rather follow the course ofhte war and then return to Churchill’s birth and early life halfway through the museum.
While the museum is full of interesting exhibits and detailed information, I feel that it has suffered from the 2003 curators’ over-excitement about new technologies. The museum is very dark, clearly to accentuate the panels and visual exhibits that light up. However this is quite disorientating once you’ve been in the museum for a few minutes, and some of the smaller more traditional exhibits such as letters and documents are difficult to read and so suffer.
The museum also lacks a clear route. I am sure some people prefer to wander and find their own route, but personally I like to look at everything when I visit a museum, preferably in order, so if I find myself reading about something ten years ahead or behind where I just was, I find it very distracting. Of course I am sure this is a personal thing.
The designers were clearly trying to weave sound and image in a very innovative way in the museum, and it certainly is innovative. However I sometimes felt the words ‘style over substance’ come to mind, as some of the design elements seemed a bit unnecessary. For example they incorporated two projections facing eachother with seats beneath, and the accompanying sound could only be heard when sitting directly below the opposite screen. While an interesting idea, it still means you have several voices in your ears at once and I feel it may have simply been more effective to just have two screens installed away from one another.
Another example of this overuse of sound technologies is the use of focused speakers in the ceiling, which are activated when you step on a sensor in the right place directly below the speaker. I am all for these methods of directing sound so it is not heard by everybody else, however it does somewhat remove the social element of visiting a museum. I found myself at several points listening to an interesting commentary near somebody else, before they suddenly moved away from the sensor, so the sound was turned off and I missed the end of the recording.
I found myself frequently wandering around confused, trying to read something, while hearing several conflicting voices coming from unexpected places. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned about these things and in a few years we will all be so used to these kinds of exhibitions. However I do think that curators should be careful not to overuse these techniques for the sake of it, at the expense of people’s understanding and comfort.
One interesting element of the museum is the Lifeline, an interactive timeline which contains loads of detailed information about every year of Churchill’s life. This is really fascinating once yuo get the hang of it, however it demonstrated how fast technology moves. As it’s 2013 my first inclination was to touch the screen to move through the timeline, however instead you have to touch one of the small pads positioned around the table. It is not very sensitive and a little difficult to navigate, but a useful reference all the same.
Leaving aside these design-related criticisms, I must say the Churchill Museum is incredibly comprehensive and has some fascinating exhibits. One of my favourites was a small interactive screen which showed remarks Churchill made over the course of his life. He was n incredibly witty man and these quotes made fantastic reading.
The museum also has one of Churchill’s Siren suits on display, an all-in-one zip up suit which he wore on many occasions. From Churchill’s early life there are also some school reports, which show his lack of achievement in early life but his interest in history, and a punishment book, which is fascinating to read just to see the kinds of punishments delivered for the types of school-related transgressions.
At this point during my visit, we had to hurry through the final part of the museum to see the rest of the war rooms before closing times. Again it would have been good to know how many rooms were left if you don’t have much time as you get stuck into the museum halfway through the route around the historical rooms.
These final rooms included the bedrooms of Churchill, his wife and other senior staff and the Chief of Staff Conference Room, which includes large maps with wartime doodlings of Hitler on them
There is also a room which the BBC used to broadcast Churchill’s speeches, four of which he made from his bedroom, including his 11 September 1940 speech warning of Hitler’s plans against the UK.
The map room is also fascinating, with maps covering every wall and each one marked by millions of tiny pinpricks as they were marked and remarked by hand. It is amazing how plans were executed from these rooms with such basic organisational equipment.
The Churchill War Rooms is definitely worth and now it has been expanded so much, I would say it is worth a whole day’s visit, as you can certainly make it worth the £17 ticket price if you absorb all the information there. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 6pm and is a short walk from Westminster or St James’s Park tube stations.
On 11 December 1941, the USA declared war on Germany and Italy on the same day that Hitler declared war on the USA. The first American servicemen arrived in Britain on 26 January 1942 and to prepare them for the culture shock of wartime Britain, the United States War Department published and distributed a handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942.
Today this book gives some fascinating insights into the cultural position of both Britain and the US, and from a British perspective it is interesting to see how some of our quirks were viewed by the Americans and vice versa. What I find most interesting is how nice the book is about Britain and the British and how insightful the comments are regarding British life. Some of the comments are really heart-warming!
American servicemen earned nearly 5 times what British Tommies earned. In 1942 when the Americans arrived, a British Private would be paid 14s a week, while his American counterpart would earn the equivalent of £3. 8s and 9d. This of course caused some bitterness among some British soldiers, leading to the (hopefully light-hearted) accusation: ‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’.
However when combined with the American tendancy to be a little more brash than the British, these inequalities were dangerous. The US War Office clearly recognised this and warned soldiers not to show off and be respectful. It’s fascinating how they explain why the British are reserved – due to our crowded island – and that this conceals a toughness that caused the English language to thrive around the world.
The British are often more reserved in conduct than we. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man learns to guard his privacy carefully-and is equally careful not to invade another man’s privacy.
So if Britons sit in trains or busses without striking up conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty and unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude.
Don’t Be a Show Off. The British dislike bragging and showing off. American wages and American soldier’s pay are the highest in the world. When pay day comes it would be sound practice to learn to spend your money according to British standards. They consider you highly paid. They won’t think any better of you for throwing money around; they are more likely to feel that you haven’t learned the common-sense virtues of thrift. The British “Tommy” is apt to be specially touchy about the difference between his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense and don’t rub him the wrong way.
The British Are Tough. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the worldbecause these people were panty-waists.
You are higher paid than the British “Tommy.” Don’t rub it in. Play fair with him. He can be a pal in need.
Britain as a war zone
What hits home right away when reading the book is the difference in war experience between Britain and the US. The book constantly reminds the American soldiers that the British have been at war already for three years and the island itself is a war zone. It shows how easy it must have been for the Americans to look down on British poverty and shabbiness compared to American wealth and how important a book like this must have been to explain the hardships the British had already suffered.
It’s quite poignant to read the summaries of how much the British suffered from an outside perspective. When we hear about the home-front in Britain, it is often easy to overstate the Blitz spirit and the positives of our ‘finest hour’ and forget how bad it really was. Coming from America to Britain, the pain must have been very clear.
Remember There’s a War On. Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. The British people are anxious to have you know that you are not seeing their country at its best. There’s been a war on since 1939- Tile houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint-they’re making planes.
Keep Out of Arguments. You can rub a Britisher the wrong way by telling him “we came over and won the last one.” Each nation did its share. But Britain remembers that nearly a million of.her best manhood died in the last war. America lost 60,000 in action.
Neither do the British need to be told that their armies lost the first couple of rounds in the present war. We’ve lost a couple, ourselves, so do not start off by being critical of them and saying what the Yanks are going to do. Use your head before you sound off, and remember how long the British alone held Hitler off without any help from anyone.
At Home in America you were in a country at war. Now, however, you are in a war zone. You will find that all Britain is a war zone and has been since September, 1939- All this has meant great changes in the British way of life.
But more important than this is the effect of the war itself. The British have been bombed, night after night and month after month. Thousands of them have lost their houses, their possessions, their families. Gasoline, clothes, and railroad travel are hard to come by and incomes are cut by taxes to an extent we Americans have not even approached.
You came to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning. So it is doubly important for you to remember that the British soldiers and civilians are living under a tremendous strain. It is always impolite to criticize your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.
The book highlights an attitude which probably still endures. Great Britain was viewed by some as an outdated system of titles and monarchy and the book takes the time to try to explain that the British respect their king while still living in ‘one of the great democracies’. You can see how the American’s perception of their own system as the greatest could easily come into conflict with British respect for tradition and it is interesting that the book goes as far as to suggest that the British system might even be better!
Although you read in the papers about “lords” and “sirs,” England is still one of the great democracies and the cradle of many American liberties. Personal rule by the King has been dead in England for nearly a thousand years. Today the King reigns, but does not govern. The British people have great affection for their monarch but have stripped him of practically all political power.
The important thing to remember is that within this apparently old-fashioned framework the British enjoy a practical, working twentieth century democracy which is in some ways even more flexible and sensitive to the will of the people than our own.
Historians often debate how far the position of women improved during the Second World War and the comments on this subject make very interesting reading. The fact that the book considers it worth pointing out indicates that the position of women in the USA had not reached a point where a female could give orders to a male. To be honest, I didn’t even realise that women officers would have that much power and respect.
A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.
Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.
These comments indicate that the war itself changed certain social relations in Britain far beyond those in America. As far as I know the book doesn’t mention it, but another interesting conflict that emerged when the Americans arrived in Britain was caused by American attitudes towards black people clashing with the comparative tolerance of the British.
Although of course racism was endemic in Britain in this period, the even more pronounced prejudices of the Americans encouraged some British people to stick up for their black neighbours. Colonel Pleas B. Rogers of the London Base Command, US Forces, admitted that in London the ‘negro British nationals are rightly incensed. They undoubtedly have been cursed, made to get off the sidewalk, leave eating places and are separated from their white wives in public by American soldiers.’ I recommend this article ‘When Jim Crow Met John Bull’ if you want to read more about this topic.
The book contains many more interesting observations – to read more go to this website.
Dr Michael Mosley is a wonderful programme maker who is responsible for several other great documentaries I’ve mentioned before, including Medical Mavericks, The Story of Science, Frontline Medicine and several episodes of Horizon. Now he’s presenting a new three-part series called Pain, Pus & Poison: The Search for Modern Medicines.
The first episode deals with the search for medicines to relieve pain. Several of the stories he presents have been presented in his previous programmes, however it’s always nice to have an update. He tells the story of the development of ether for use in operations, which was marked by conflict between William T. G. Morton, who performed a painless tooth extraction with the drug in 1846, and Henry Jacob Bigelow, who arranged a demonstrations where ether was used in an operation on a patient’s neck tumor.
He also explains how the drugs Heroin and Aspirin were developed simultaneously and initially Heroin was selected as the preferred drug and marketed successfully by Bayer AG. Aspirin slowly grew in popularity as Heroin’s addictive properties began to cause concern and Aspirin became one of the most popular drugs in the world.
Mosley tests the medicines he is talking about on himself, which really brings his programmes to life, proving he’s really serious about what he’s talking about, or at least eager to get high! In this first episode, he conducts several staggering experiments, including rubbing cocaine into his eye before poking it and having himself intravenously drugged with sodium thiopental, to test its ability as a truth serum.
The show is incredibly engaging, and I particularly enjoy his explanations of how the painkillers actually function in the body, something I always wonder about when taking them! The episode concludes with a celebration of morphine, the drug that has endured for 200 years despite huge developments in medicine.
Episode 1: Pain is on iPlayer now, as is the next episode, Pus.
In the last couple of weeks I have been craving modern history documentaries, particularly those concerned with British and American politics. The next few documentary posts contain a few good ones I’ve discovered during my browsing.
Blair: The Inside Story
Several documentaries were made in 2007, on the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister, including this one and The Blair Years. Both are on YouTube and are worth watching. I find this period very interesting as it is the only one I remember personally – my formative years were during Blair’s government. Blair: The Inside Story is presented by award-winning political journalist Michael Cockerell and is a generally well-balanced look back at Blair’s time in office. It contains fascinating interviews with key players in government, as well as revealing footage of Tony Blair inside Number 10, filmed by Cockerell himself.
The NHS: A Difficult Beginning
This documentary explains how the National Health Service was created and the difficulties it overcame to get established. it was broadcast on BBC4 in 2009 to celebrate the 60th birthday of the NHS. It tells the story of Nye Bevan, Labour’s minister of health, who pushed the reforms through despite enormous opposition from the Tory Party, the press and most importantly the medical establishment. This is a fascinating insight into some often overlooked areas of modern history – definitely worth a watch.
There is a fabulous exhibition currently running at the PM Gallery, which is part of Pitzhanger Manor House in Walpole park, Ealing. Entitled Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill, it displays the work of MacDonald Gill, illustrator, architect and mapmaker, who created some wonderful pictorial maps of London.
Gill has been hugely influential in the field of graphic design and some of his images are well-known. Most famous perhaps is the ‘Wonderground’ map, made in 1914 for London Underground which shows a fantasy version of the Tube.
There are many detailed and humorous maps of the London streets, as well as some interesting educational maps and posters depicting aspects of the British Empire, produced for various companies and government departments.
His professional success was also underpinned by major national commissions including the design of the alphabet for standard military headstones (for the Imperial War Graves Commission); the procession map and title page for the official programme for the Coronation of King George VI; a new logo and posters for the General Post Office.
The exhibition also contains more personal objects from Gill’s life and career as well as architectural drawings, letters and photographs. This is a small but very rewarding exhibition, a little off the beaten track for visitors to London, but should certainly be visited by everyone.
The only thing I wish they had was a gift shop or information about how to buy copies of the maps since I would love to have some of them as posters. Many of the objects on display have been loaned from the London Transport Museum and other archives so I am contacting them to find out. The exhibition lasts until 2 November and the nearest tube station is Ealing Broadway on the Central Line.
I went to the Design Museum on the South Bank to visit The Future is Here exhibition, which focuses on new design and manufacturing techniques. It has a quick introduction to the breakthroughs of the industrial revolution before flagging the dawn of ‘a new industrial revolution’, with advances in robotics, new materials and 3D printing.
We are in the midst of a transformation in the way we design, make and use the objects that we depend on. It is a transformation that will affect commerce, industry, and the way that we all live as profoundly as any previous Industrial Revolution. The exhibition explores how the boundaries between designer, manufacturer and consumer are becoming increasingly blurred. See some of these manufacturing techniques demonstrated in The Future is Here Factory and find out how they will change the designed world around you.
The exhibition had some fascinating objects showing new materials and new ways of designing products, but the best exhibits were the machines themselves in action. They have a 3D printer and woodworking machines as well as some robotic demonstrations and videos of products being designed and materials processed. They also have some examples of furniture which you can have manufactured to order online from downloadable designs, before assembling the parts at home. Even the exhibition itself was built from cardboard, stacked and carved to create light but solid tables.
The main collection exhibition is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, on display until 2015, which I actually found more interesting. The Design Museum have selected 150 objects from the collections to explore their history. It includes some fascinating examples of British design, including a feature on the design of road signs and the London telephone box. It’s also interesting to see some not-so-old examples of design, such as the Apple iMac, which look so dated now.
Six design stories offer a diverse look at design tracing the history and processes of contemporary design. The show includes furniture, product, fashion, transport and architecture alongside a selection of prototypes, models and specially commissioned films.
Another smaller section at the museum is Designers in Residence 2013, which to be honest I found a little pretentious, except for the very moving work of Chloe Meineck, who designs memory boxes for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
The Future is Here is on display until 29 October 2013 and is open daily between 10am and 5.45pm. The gift shop is also worth a visit, even if only to look at the products. There are some really interesting things there, but as you might expect everything’s very expensive.
Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain
This documentary was first broadcast in 2009 and cover the period in British history from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War. it was made as a follow-up to A History of Modern Britain which covered the period after the Second World War and is unfortunately not on YouTube. It covers a very interesting period which is often neglected in popular histories and Marr continually makes the point that the Britain of today is closely connected to the developments of this period. He’s a great documentary maker and keeps things light and entertaining even when dealing with depressing and controversial topics.
Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery
This is a brilliant set of five programmes which I missed when they were first broadcast in 2008. They are presented by Michael J. Mosley, a medical doctor and journalist, and he is a really engaging speaker who is never scared of getting involved in experiments to show us the old medical treatments of the past. The programmes cover some really fascinating topics such as brain and heart surgery, plastic surgery and transplants. He has made many other programmes for TV and radio including Medical Mavericks, wchich explores the history of self-experimentation and The Making of Modern Medicine on BBC Radio 4. Other examples of his work can be found on Youtube.
Blackadder Rides Again
This is a fantastic run through of the history of the sitcom Blackadder, broadcast at Christmas 2008 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. For those who don’t know the programme, it covers in four series the medieval period, the Elizabethan period, the Regency and the First World War, with Edmund Blackadder as the protagonist. It has become very influential in the historical knowledge of many British people – it’s even used in school lessons (it was in mine!). It’s also a great documentary with extra unseen material and interesting interviews with the key players.
A History of Britain
If you want to learn about British history, I think this is definitely the place to start. Simon Schama made 15 episodes in 3 series covering the entirety of British history, broadcast between 2000 and 2002. He also published three accompanying books. Of course it is a very broad overview, and some have complained at the overemphasis on the history of England at the expense of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but I would say Schama does cover these areas in quite a lot of depth compared to some historians! Schama is a very captivating presenter and the use of music and imagery in the doc make it a very relaxing watch.