Today I visited the Imperial War Museum for the Ashcroft Gallery exhibit on Victoria and George Cross stories. Whilst I also looked around the rest of the museum it’s perhaps better to concentrate on just the one gallery. An entire review would take me just about all day!
I’ve always been fascinated with the stories behind these medals. There’s some really fantastic, “Wow – I can’t believe someone did that” stuff in there and for the most part each one feels like you could have an entire documentary about it. They’re great focal points are really draw you into the setting. Once there you can then establish the context surrounding the event to look at all the brave men and women who didn’t get medals, but were there in the action. Lord Ashcroft’s collection of victoria crosses contains 164 awards, and alongside these are many other awards already owned by the museum or simply donated for the exhibit.
The method for laying out the awards isn’t particularly clear, it took me a while to understand why I was leaping about from the first world war, second world war, crimean, current iraq campaign, etc. Essentially the medals are layed out in seven “themes”: Skill, Endurance, Sacrifice and also the more strange Agression. I didn’t personally like this way of laying out the medals. I found it jarring to be transported around in time by 150 years, it wasn’t clearly labelled and it also managed to make some of the most extraordinary displays of heroism seem routine. If you wonder along by row reading the same short: “rode out and rescued wounded soldiers under enemy fire” descriptions it can begin to become repetitive which it really shouldn’t be. It also made it difficult to look for particular medals.
The collection itself is extraordinary though, the huge variety in ways in which people distinguish themselves really driven home. The gallery is well lit and the display places at a good height for young and old. Alongside the medals there are also some appropriate artefacts: frog suits, flak jackets and bomb fuses that are relevant to the medal located nearby. There is a lack of labelling perhaps, only touch screen computer screens situated on each row give you any real information. Without these medals within the display cases will be completely unmarked. Even with these screens there’s been very little attention paid to the medals which sit alongside the George and Victoria crosses or the clasps. When the gallery gets a little older and touch screens inevitably break down I can imagine this becoming a problem. New technology is great but there’s a reason The British Museum is the greatest in the world. It’s not just the great collection, but the intelligent informative way it’s displayed. Generally it’s difficult for more than one person to read the screens, whereas a nice display plaque can be viewed by many.
The focus on the personal stories within the gallery contrasts with the rest of the museum and really highlights the flaws in concentrating only on the machinery of the war rather than the personal stories of those involved. These are both more interesting and tell us a lot more about the nature of war.
All in all the exhibit is interesting and worth going along to see but several factors left me feeling slightly disappointed.