By Michele Leight
LONDON - March 31, 2000 - At
the worldwide, televised celebrations of the "Millennium"
Dec. 31, 1999, there were great expectations that England would
embark on a renaissance reflecting its official endorsement of
the notion of great inspiring public works and events.
While for many American viewers,
Paris and its luminescent Eiffel Tower won the day/night, especially
since a much heralded plan to set the Thames in London "ablaze"
was clouded by the smoke of so many fireworks, London is getting
off to/on a new century in great style and with great purpose.
While the specificity of Millennium
celebrations can be and was overhyped, ésprit and
élan are very important culturally and clearly London
has a good grasp again on them. It has a spectacular Millennium
Dome designed by Sir Norman Foster (See a photograph of it in
The City Review
article on "The World of Contemporary Architecture by Francisco
Asencio Cerver) that
is an modern Arabian fantasy festooned with tall cranes near the
ever-so corporately crisp Canary Wharf project designed by Cesar
Pelli and a humongous Ferris Wheel, the 450-foot-tall London Eye
with its thirty-two 25-person gondolas just down the Thames from
the Houses of Parliament that demonstrates that the British have
not lost their sense of humor. It also has the relatively new
sinuous glass train station designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, a fine
modernist poetic flourish and a new Globe Theater that just added
an interactive museum close to the new Tate Modern that opens
A few years back, the National
Gallery decided to expand at Trafalgar Square and while its addition
designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown was a bit conservative
and awkward their selection indicated that Britain was not afraid
of controversy and "intellectual" architecture.
For those drawn back to the
"old" familiar sights, of course, there are Westminster
Abbey, The Tower, and the enchantment of the Embankment at sunset,
the Houses of Parliament enveloped in Monet mists, or pale pink
light, as tugboats and ferries plough back and forth across the
Thames, and the myriad parks in spring are breathtakingly beautiful,
with carpets of daffodils casting a yellow haze.
But the really exciting news
is the rejuvenjation of many of the citys other major cultural
institutions with really impressive and exotic expansions.
The British Museum has long
been the bastion of imperial might. It was founded by an Act of
Parliament in 1753, occupying Montagu House, a 17th Century mansion
on the present sight and was the earliest national museum in the
United Kingdom. In 1823 Robert Smirke drew up proposals for a
new Museum building, which was completed in the 1850s and its
colonnaded facade was properly impressive.
Smirkes Greek Revival
building was designed around an internal courtyard, giving the
public direct access to the galleries across a central garden.
The facades of the courtyard were clad in portland stone.
In 1852 Sir Charles Barry produced
a scheme for the inner courtyard to be covered with a glass roof,
imitating the methods of construction for the Crystal Palace,
the great glass exposition hall that astounded the world, shown
above in a painting by Henry Courtney Selous (1803-90) in the
collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Antonio Panizzi,
the Museums Keeper of Printed Books, proposed instead a
new Reading Room for the courtyard space. Panizzi won, and Sydney
Smirke (Roberts brother) designed the "Round"
Reading Room, which was completed at the center of the courtyard
The "Great Court"
is in the throes of the most exciting expansion and restoration
project, the highlight being Sir Norman Fosters "roof"
of glass, stretching outward and around the central "Reading
Room, which will create the largest covered plaza in Europe, recovering
what has until now been one of the great lost public spaces of
The much anticipated opening
of the "Great Court" of the British Museum, with its
glass-covered roof, shown in the photograph above, is scheduled
for October 2000 and will include renovations to the main concourse,
the Clore Education Center and Center for Young Visitors, but
not the Reading Room). The next month heralds the official opening
of all parts of the Great Court, including the Reading Room, the
Sainsbury African Galleries and the Joseph Hotung Gallery. The
entire space, the size of the Wembly football pitch, will soon
be spanned by a spectacular steel and glass roof. The Reading
Room will be restored faithfully to its original 1857 decorative
The Great Court will increase
public space at the museum by fifty percent, and will house an
education center, exhibition galleries, a restaurant, café
and Museum shops. The Reading Room will be open to the public
for the first time, a departure from the previous "ticket
holders only" policy, complemented by an innovative multimedia
collections database. This world-famous room has harbored such
literary giants as Karl Marx, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
The complex form of the new
glass "roof," a detail of which is shown above in a
computer-generated rendering, represents an extraordinary feat
of engineering; designed by computer, manufactured by robots and
built by crane, it is the creation of the projects architects,
Foster and Partners, and engineers, Buro Happold.
Specialized surveying equipment
ensures that the roofs complex geometry is translated with
the utmost precision from design to reality. The roof structure
is being built to an astonishing accuracy of 10 millimetres. With
a computer model of the roof in its memory, the theodolite checks
three-dimensional coordinates by directing an infrared light beam
at a holographic target which mimics the prism traditionally used
in surveying. Sir Norman Foster has described the new enclosed
space as "a great new public plaza for London."
The Round Reading Room was
founded with the British Museum in the mid-nineteenth century,
and was immediately hailed as one of the most remarkable interiors
in London. Three radical "redecorations" have since
then obliterated the original appearance of the room. Investigations
by restoration specialists have revealed exactly how the Reading
Room looked when completed in 1857. The Reading Room was one of
the great cast-iron buildings of the nineteenth century: cast
iron was the trendy, "new" material used for the construction
of public buildings, following the most widely acclaimed example
Sir Joseph Paxtons Crystal Palace of 1851.
The interior of the dome is
a form of paper-maché called "fibrous slab,"
or patent wood, an invention registered in 1847 by C. F. Bielefeld.
The inspiration for the idea is credited to Admiral Lord Nelson
(who stands proudly atop the pillar at the centre of Trafalgar
Square), who in 1805 used a mixture of hemp and caulk to waterproof
the ships of HM Royal Navy. The flexibility of the hemp caulk
counteracted the shrinking and leaking of the timbers as the fleet
headed south to meet the French at the Battle of Trafalgar. Two
tons of paint and 25 kilometers of 23.25 carat gold leaf (over
12,000 books of gold leaf) will just about wrap up the redecoration
of the Reading Room!
The restoration and re-decoration
of all the grand public rooms on the museums principal floor
will include the grandest room of all the Kings Library
the earliest and most magnificent part of Sir Robert Smirkes
building, and among the most important Regency interiors in London.
It was purpose-built for the library of King George III, and presented
to the nation by King George IV in 1823. It has now been removed
to the British Librarys building in St. Pancras.
The Museum's plans for the
Kings Library will be in keeping with its original purpose, and
the original architecture respected by any future displays. Beginning
with the eighteenth century, the great age of learning and discovery
in which the British Museum was founded, the planned exhibition
will introduce visitors to the ways in which knowledge has been
gathered and classified in the past. It will show how the pioneering
studies of nature and man formed the basis of the modern understanding
of the world. Visually, it promises to be a breathtaking experience.
The British Museum is Londons
principal tourist venue and the second-most-visited attraction
in the country, next to Blackpool Beach. It has by far the highest
level of attendance of any museum in the UK and is the most visited
museum of its kind in the world. It is reassuring to see
that the shoals of school children munching sandwiches in the
entrance forecourt have not diminished over the years, equipped
with well-worn backpacks and carefree laughter. Annual attendance
figures at the museum have grown dramatically over the past twenty
years, rising from two to six million. (In 1993, the museum has
had as many as 13,000 people in the museum at the same time. Heathrow
Airport, the busiest international airport in the world, handled
15,500 in its busiest hour the same year.)
This wonderful institution,
like the National Gallery of Art and the Tate, is free to the
Individual donors, including
the Queen, companies, foundations and trusts, have contributed
58 million pounds to its expansion and renovations. The Millennium
Commission has donated 30 million pounds and 15.75 million pounds
have come from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Great Court will
be dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen.
"Must-sees" at the
museum are the famous, and notorious, Elgin Marbles, now diplomatically
known as the Parthenon Marbles. Many books are available at the
museum's stores on this fascinating story, including book that
have denounced Lord Elgins appropriation of these famous
sculptures and carvings. Lord Elgin was British Ambassador at
Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1799. Concerned about the destruction
of Greek classical remains in Greece, he assembled a team of artists
and architects to record what survived, and later he obtained
permission from the authorities to remove marble sculptures from
the frieze around the exterior of the Parthenon. Hey, he was a
politician, give the guy a break, they said yes.
The sculptures arrived in London
in 1802 and Elgin displayed them to the public; fourteen years
later, overcome by financial problems, he sold them to the British
Government. They caused a sensation then as they do now.
Dedicated to Athena, the patron
goddess of Athens, the Parthenon was the most important temple
in ancient Athens. Built in the mid-sixth century BC, its architects
were Ictinus and Callicrates, and the carved decorations were
supervised by the famous sculptor Phidias. Below is an example
of the exquisite beauty and ground-breaking realism of these works,
"Two riders in the procession at the Great Panathenaic Festival
(Pantelic marble, from the Parthenon circa 440 BC, west frieze,
It would be impossible to list
most of the wonderful books, artifacts, coins (The Money Gallery
is very popular with the young), paintings, prints, objects of
great ethnographic significance and the highlights of the many
world-class collections contained in this awesome Museum: the
worlds greatest "adventurers" have left behind
their "discovered" artifacts and their writings, and
it takes an adventurous soul to navigate a place which challenges,
inspires and restores order to the human spirit, as does this
"The Emperor Augustus,"
(27 BC-AD14), a Roman sardonyx cameo, shown above, is just one
of thousands of fabulous treasures at the British Museum. Augustus
is shown wearing the aegis, a goatskin breastplate modelled on
that worn by Athena, which was considered to have divine power.
Moving from Bloomsbury and
the British Museum to South Kensington and the Victoria and Albert
Museum is a change in tempo, and if time permits, Hyde Park offers
striped "deck" chairs for 50 pence an hour (if the chap
with the leather pouch finds you in time), or you can park yourself
on a bench without worry. The Albert Memorial is a stately reminder
that Prince Albert (and his wife, Queen Victoria), gave great
support to the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum, both
being firm believers that all people deserved "culture",
not just the wealthy, and in 1899 Queen Victoria laid the foundation
stone to the new grand facade and entrance, pulling together the
more temporary structures previously known as the South Kensington
Museum. It was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.
There have been some changes
at the V&A over the years, all of them positive and enhancing;
the serene Buddha has departed from the inner courtyard, but the
benches are still there and the peace and tranquillity have been
enhanced by the plantings and elegant classical landscaping, redesigned
by Roy Strong.
The big news, however, is the
planned addition of Daniel Liebeskinds "Spiral"
along the Exhibition Road entrance to the Museum, facing the Museums
of Science and Natural History. The photograph at the top of this
article shows the Exhibition Road façade as it is today
with the proposed "Spiral" in a photo-montage. The photograph
below shows the attractive colonnade it will replace, which hopefully
will find a home somewhere. While the loss of the colonnade might
be sad, its replacement with Liebeskind's "Spiral" is
extraordinarily good news for the world as it is a very spectacular
design that is only superceded by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum
in Bilbao, Spain, as the most important new project in the world
at the turn of the Millenium.
Today, as the Museum prepares
to move into the next century, the founding principles of the
Museum are as relevant as they were then, to educate and inspire
people in art, craft and design and to foster creativity in present
and future generations of designers and manufacturers. The "Spiral"
is a ground-breaking initiative for the V & A, and Daniel
Liebeskinds building is testament to their commitment to
combine revolutionary structural form with the very latest museum
Daniel Liebeskind is one of
the worlds foremost architects; his Berlin-based studio
was established in 1989, and has been involved in urban, architectural
and cultural projects in France, Japan, China, the United States
and Germany. His design of recently completed Jewish Museum in
Berlin (see an illustration of a model of it in The City Review article on "Architecture
For The Future," Editions Pierre Terrail, Paris, 1996)
is one of the greatest buildings of the 20th Century. in Berlin).
Liebeskind was Head of Architecture at Cranbrook Academy from
1978-85. He was appointed Senior Scholar to the John Paul Getty
Center and has held positions as visiting lecturer at Harvard,
the Royal Danish Academy of Art, the Louis Sullivan Professorship
at Chicago, the Bannister Fletcher Professorship at the University
of London, the Davenport Chair at Yale University. Currently he
is Professor at UCLA and the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie,
Liebeskind has formed a close
collaboration with Cecil Balmond, one of the leading design engineers
in the world and a specialist in galleries and museums. Balmond
is a Main Board member of the firm of Ove Arup & Partners,
famous for such projects as the Sydney Opera House, Centre Pompidou,
Kansai Airport and the Stuttgart Art Gallery. He is the Saarinen
visiting professor at Yale University, School of Architecture.
The structure of the "Spiral"
is complex and elegant, bold and exciting. Its walls rise in a
series of inclined planes to form a self-supporting spiral, providing
a spectacular sculptural presence in the urban landscape. The
walls of the "Spiral" overlap and interlock in a strong,
robust manner that gives the structure its stability. The internal
walls which span between these walls are flat and column-free.
Continuing in a South Kensington
tradition, the exterior of the Spiral will be clad in hand-crafted
tiles, the color chosen to complement the Portland stone of the
existing surrounding buildings of the V & A. Since it was
founded in the 1850s, the Museum has used contemporary craftspeople
to fit-out and decorate its buildings; the impressive "Morris
Room", opened in 1868, was designed by Morris, Marshall,
Faulkner and Co. The "Spiral" will continue this tradition,
commissioning artworks to present the best of contemporary design.
The total cost of the "Spiral" building is estimated
at 80 million pounds. In April 2002, Mark Jones, the museum's
director, said that the Spiral will be the second phase of the
museum's $150 million expansion and that work on it should begin
late next year and be completed in 2007.
In an article in the September
17, 2004 edition of The New York Times, however, Carol
Vogel reported that "Citing a lack of government financing,
the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced
yesterday that they had canceled plans to build a radically modern
extension designed by Daniel Libeskind," adding that "The
decision had been anticipated since mid-July, when the Heritage
Lottery Fund rejected the museum's application for a $27 million
grant to help cover the $110 million cost of the project."
Returning to the present, the
American Dale Chiluhys gorgeous contemporary blue glass
"chandelier," shown above, floats ethereally beneath
the domed entrance hall, with an impressive gift and bookshop
available to the public before the ticket desk if you need to
pick up a guide book to the museum's vast collections of decorative
art, paintings, prints, textiles; the admission is five pounds,
with senior citizen discounts and children are free. It is essential
to have a map at the V & A, especially if there are specific
galleries or collections you wish to reach and do not have all
day to find them.
Off to the left upon entering
in Gallery 48a are the magnificent "cartoons" by Raphael
(1483-1520), commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel
in the Vatican. The seven cartoons, which are ranked amongst the
greatest artistic treasures in Britain, have belonged to the Royal
Family since 1623. They have been on loan to the museum since
1865 no doubt Prince Albert and Queen Victoria had something
to do with that! The remarkable thing about them is that they
are painted on multiple sheets of paper glued together; Raphael
created them in small squares so the weavers could work easily
from them. Later, they were joined to form the larger than life
"sketches" they are today. He must have been quite a
mathematician and one would imagine he would have appreciated
the intricate tilework that will cover Liebeskind's "Spiral."
The subject of the cartoons
are taken from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul and they alone
would make the visit worthwhile, but there is more, much more.
The V & A is the most persistently labyrinthine gallery in
the world, and getting lost here is de rigeur. Take heart,
wherever you end up, it will be worth it.
For those who love the Orient,
there is the solid gold throne from India of Ranjit Singh (known
to the British as the "Lion of the Punjab"). He sat
in it rarely, preferring to sit cross-legged on carpets. He became
Maharaja in 1801, and presided over one of the most splendid courts
in the subcontinent. The Nehru Gallery contains Shah Jehans
wine cup ( he built the most beautiful tomb in the world for his
beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal), exquisite jewels, and
Tipu Sultans (The Tiger of Mysore) macabre model of a tiger
devouring a British soldier, a mechanical marvel prized by Tipu
and kitted out with an organ that simulated the growls and shrieks
of its British victims. After Tipus defeat at the Battle
of Seringapatam in 1799, "Tipus Tiger," shown
below, was seized by the British and became the most famous exhibit
of the East India Companys collection, later transferred
to the V & A.
"The Great Bed of Ware"
(1500-1750), made famous when Shakespeare included it in his play
"Twelfth Night, was made for an inn in Ware, Herefordshire,
and was acquired by the savvy proprietor to generate more business
of those traveling to and from London. In those days hotels involved
sharing a bed with a bunch of strangers (same sex!), hence the
size. The British Galleries also contain many rooms from great
English town and country houses, Henry VIII's portable writing
desk (1525-6), and the diarist John Evelyns (1620-1706)
cabinet, commissioned to accompany him on his "Grand Tour,"
without which no proper gentlemans education was considered
complete. It must have taken two men to cart it about, but that
was par for the course, a bit of "home" whilst abroad
The Dress Gallery, with costumes
and "fashions" dating from the 16th Century to the present
day, is always teeming with visitors, and recently included a
striking focus on the current fascination of fashionistas with
"black." Young sketchers were very much in evidence,
blissfuly absorbed in rendering Jane Austenesque Regency "Empire"
muslin gowns, Diors "New Look" and embroidered
mantuas (the impossibly wide French dresses of the 1740s) described
accurately by a young teenager as "armrests." Those
dresses make anything fashionably outrageous today pale in comparison.
It is sobering to remember in these days of denim and black just
how flamboyantly men used to dress, covered in embroidery, ostrich
feathered hats and silken hose. There are incredible displays
of accessories through the centuries, most notably shoes.
The grand and the endearing
share the spotlight at the V & A, which is part of its charm,
and the eye juggles glorious regal gems of monarchs with Ernest
Shepherd's simple sketches for A. A. Milnes "Winnie
the Pooh" and loyal "Piglet" and Beatrix Potter's
illustrations for her famous tales of Peter Rabbit and Tigglywinkle,
quietly conceived in her remote Lake District cottage. Moving
forward to the 20th Century Gallery, is "Klange," ("Sounds"),
published in 1913 in Munich by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and
printed from woodblocks, the oldest printing technique the perfect
foil for the modernity of his abstract, colorful imagery. The
Americans Charles (1907-78) and his wife Ray (1913-88) Eames were
successful in designing modern furniture for mass-production,
and are well represented here.
The museum is filled with exotic
and fascinating rooms such as its huge "cast" room,
Defeated by exhaustion the
visitor will be restored by the light and airy café, serving
snacks as well as elegant salads and desserts, and the inner courtyard
of this Victorian Museum is one of the most serene spots in London,
rarely overrun with visitors, always inhabited by sparrows and
the benches are free. A souvenir or postcards from the giftshop,
so full of delectable merchandise and reading matter it is hard
to choose, and it is time to re-enter the hurly burly traffic
of Cromwell Road, where Londons double-decker buses are
ready to connect visitors to the Underground and most destinations
in the city. It is impossible to leave the V & A without a
pang; for a few hours the graciousness of past times outpaces
the speed and tenacity of the 21st Century so wonderfully highlighted
by the "Spiral" that exuberantly bridges the gap between
old and new.
Continuing in the great design
tradition of the Museum, Daniel Liebeskinds wonderful and
great "Spiral" will be a London and world landmark that
proudly looks forward to the future.
While Daniel Liebeskind's "Spiral"
at the Victoria & Albert Museum will undoubtedly become the
most spectacular modern building in London when it is completed
since the high-tech Lloyds Building, the new Tate Modern museum
may well become more popular.
On May 12, 2000, Sir Giles
Gilbert Scott's Bankside Power Station will open to the public
as Tate Modern. The original Tate remains in the original building
on Millbank, which opened to the public in March 2000 as Tate
Britain, reserving for its collections "British" art,
created by well known masters such as Turner, Gainsborough and
William Blake, but incorporating artists of many different nationalities
and origins, like John Singer Sargeant, R.B. Kitaj and Mona Hartoum.
(See The City Review
article on "RePresenting Britain.")
Sir Giles is best known as
the designer of London's famous and delightful red street telephone
The Swiss architectural firm
of Herzog & de Meuron won the international competition for
the conversion of Bankside Power Station which drew 148 entires
designed to transform the landmark building into a gallery for
the Tate's international collection of twentieth-century art,
widely acknowledged to be one of the three or four most important
in the world. Herzog & de Meuron were finalists in the competition
for the major expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York,
which was won by Yoshio Tanaguchi. (See The City Review article on the Museum of Modern
Art competition that discusses Herzog & de Meuron's fine entry
The Tate Modern's collection
consists of works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Duchamp, Dali,
Bacon, Giacometti, Pollock, Warhol and Louise Bourgeois and is
one of the best in the world. The importance to London of the
transformation of the abandoned Bankside Power Plant into a great
modern art museum is underscored by the fact that it will be visually
linked to St. Paul's Cathedral across the Thames with a bridge,
the first one in central London since 1894. Sadly, the bridge's
opening was marred by swaying problems.
The Bankside building, shown
above, will be an energizing and imaginative combination of old
and new; Herzog & de Meuron have respected the integrity of
the original building and its soaring central chimney. The most
dramatic change to the building is a glass structure running the
length of the roof, which, in addition to adding two floors, will
provide natural light for the upper galleries, creating spectacular
views of London. When illuminated at night, it will become an
important identifying feature of the building. The French-born
American sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, has the honor of creating
the inaugural work, sponsored by Unilever and commissioned by
the Tate which will be unveiled in the 500-foot-long and 100-foot-high
Turbine Hall (illustrated below) in May 2000 when Tate Modern
As can be expected the costs
are staggering - 134.2 million pounds - funded in part by grants
of 50 million pounds from the Millennium Commission and 6.2 million
pounds from the Arts Council, two of the distributors of money
raised from the National Lottery. English Partnerships, the government's
urban regeneration agency, and Southwark Council have also made
substantial investments, and significant funds have been raised
from individuals, charities and foundations. The new gallery will
help revive a wide area of inner London, and help to reconfigure
cultural tourism along the South Bank of the Thames. It is estimated
that it will help create 2,400 new jobs and bring direct economic
benefits to London of between 50 and 90 million pounds each year.
Visitors will enter by a new
main entrance at the west end of the building, and descend down
a ramp into the vast former turbine hall. The galleries for works
of art will be arranged on three levels, creating a total display
space of 14,000 square metres. A café designed to seat
240 and a restaurant seating 200 in a "light box" on
level 7 will offer panoramic views over the river.
Tate Modern 2000, The Collection,
will break with tradition and depart from the chronological groupings
of artworks and schools and, like Tate Britain's RePresenting
Britain, display its international artworks in themed groups.
The thematic approach will enable displays to cut across movements
and disciplines, creating exciting juxtapositions, fusing the
historic with the contemporary, and painting and sculpture with
film, video and photography; well known works such as Henri Matisse's
"Snail," Claude Monet's "Waterlillies" and
Francis Bacon's "Three Studies at the Base of a Cruxifixion"
will be displayed in a new context. The rich holdings of the contemporary
work of living artists will be given more exposure. The director
of the Tate recently participated in a forum on "new museums"
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is also expanding
and which has been experimenting with similar approachs to exhibitions
(see The City Review's
article on ModernStarts, a thematically oriented exhibition at
the Museum of Modern Art
For the first time, displays
at the Tate will make fuller use of archival documentation, film
and photography. Tate Modern will open with an "In Focus"
look at Picasso's "Weeping Woman", the screening of
Leger's film "Ballet Mechanique," and a small exhibition
of photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum (including
works by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray.)
Tate Modern will also open
with substantial loans from the Froehlich Foundation in Stuttgart,
including works by Nauman, Warhol, Beuys and Flavin. For the opening
year, Level 4 will be used to show some of the large-scale installation
art acquired by the Tate in the last ten years, rarely shown due
to lack of space and such artists as Matthew Barney, Rebecca Horn,
Cornelia Parker and Bill Viola will be represented.
Admission is free except for
temporary exhibitions and special events, so if a visit to London
is in the cards on or after May 12th, 2000, hop on the Tube (British
for the London Subway) and take the Jubilee Line to Southwark,
or the Circle & District Line to Blackfriars - an try to make
time for lunch at the café or restaurant up on the roof.
On Fridays and Saturdays dinner would be a spectacular option,
as the restaurant is open till 10 PM.
If you have a non-sightseeing
male teenager on your hands and have given up on ever finding
a cultural activity they might deign to enjoy, take them to the
Imperial War Museum, on Lambeth Road. Young children of both sexes,
war veterans and young couples vied with blazered schoolboys and
the back-packers on a recent mild spring afternoon for a closer
look at tanks, guns and missiles in the Large Exhibits Gallery,
the impressive central space of Arup Associates' redevelopment
of the original building; overhead, suspended from the glass roof,
flew a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IA, which saw action in the legendary
Battle of Britain. Another Allied "star" was the North
American P-51 Mustang, which could escort bombers to Berlin and
back with auxiliary fuel tanks.
Every battle or conflict involving
Britain or the Commonwealth since 1914 is represented here, which
includes a surprising number of "American" wars, such
as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the more
insidious and subversive forms of terrorist warfare present in
today's world. The World War II exhibits are particularly moving
and the spirit of Churchill presides, cigar between his lips and
a steadfast gaze: "
Never was so much owed by so many
to so few," his brilliant as always homage to the fighter
pilots of all nationalities who fought and died in the Battle
of Britain. Of great interest to all visitors is one of the principal
features of the First World War - a walk-through recreation of
a front-line trench on the Somme in the autumn of 1916. The recreation
is brought to life with special lighting, sound and smell effects.
You might have to wait a while for one of the "periscopes"
for enemy viewing. The army doctors "quarters" in the
dug-out are a particularly sobering experience.
It is refreshing to find the
exhibits to be more of a world history lesson than a guns and
ammo fest, and fascinating to count the different nationalities
present throughout the displays; in the "Gulf War" section
I found myself wedged in between a pair of elegantly hatted Orthodox
Jews from New York, and three Arabic speaking gentlemen, all eagerly
reading the detailed captions and statistics charts.
The museum abounds in fascinating
photos and exhibits such as pictures of T. E. Lawrence in the
desert, the front of a Lancaster bomber, wonderful wartime posters,
such as the one shown below, and a V2 rocket, a stark reminder
of how London suffered during the Blitz when a bomb actually fell
very close to St. Paul's Cathedral but fortunately was defused
by Lieutenant Robert Davies.
The current major "draw"
to this museum is the exhibition, "From the Bomb to the Beatles,"
designed by Sir Terence Conran and CD Partnership, which documents
the social and cultural changes in the post-war years - 1945 to
1965 - through film, paintings, photographs, fashion, food and
posters such as the original film poster for James Bond's "From
Russia With Love," (starring the incomparable Sean Connery).
This exhibit is on till May 29th, 2000.
The museum was opened in the
Crystal Palace by King George V in 1920 and was reopened in its
present home by the Duke of York, shortly to become King George
VI in 1936. In 1986, the museum initiated a major redevelopment
scheme, the first stage of which, designed by Arup Associates,
has been completed and provides the museum with three times its
former exhibition space. More development is planned.
Admission is 5 pounds 20 pence,
Senior Citizens, Students and UB 40s 4 pounds 20 pence and children
are free. It is open daily from 10-6, except for December 24,
25 and 26. Tubes are Lambeth North, Elephant & Castle or Waterloo
and just follow the signs to the Imperial War Museum. You will
have to walk for a good 10 minutes, but it is well worth it; even
teenagers perk up on arrival. There is an elegant café
in the museum and a wonderful gift and bookshop.