Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Positively Eerie

August 30th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I’ve noticed that my blogs tend to have an incredibly critical tone to them. As a person who usually is quite positive and tries to find the good in all situations, such a pattern is a bit upsetting or at least surprising to me. Thank goodness for the Cabinet War Rooms offering me the chance to mix up the tone a bit.  What seems to be most upsetting to me about certain places I have visited while in England is if that place operates behind a façade of what it really is. St. James’ Park is beautiful and promises peaceful relaxation but is only enjoyed by a select few. Bath is beautiful because that’s what tourists want to see. The Cabinet War Rooms are a bit on the pricier side of the spectrum so admittance could be seen as selective in ways. But assuming you have the twelve pounds and some change to get in, you’re guaranteed to see and experience all that the rooms were during World War II. That sense of ‘real-ness’ is something I most appreciated about the museum. The Blitz completely changed the London atmosphere during WWII, and somehow the museum was able to capture the feelings of anxiety that one can only imagine were present in the city at that time.

Outside view of The Cabinet War Rooms

Outside view of The Cabinet War Rooms

Upon entering the museum, a feeling of eerie tension is almost inescapable. A most unpleasant guard very solemnly asked to look through my bag before I was to be admitted into the museum. I cracked an admittedly bad joke about how many maps I was carrying in it and how that might be difficult to look around in the bag. Laughter, a smile, even a twinkle of the eye was completely absent in his reaction. I recognize that he must get similar jokes all the time but his stern mood definitely set the mood for what was to come in the rest of the museum. Now, this may seem an odd experience to enter into the blog especially when I’m hoping to highlight how wonderful the museum was. Truly, I would have appreciated if he had acknowledged my attempt at being friendly but I think it’s actually good that he didn’t. The museum wasn’t a happy one. It shouldn’t have been. It was a preservation of a shelter that was put in place to ensure that communication and governance could continue in the case that an air raid might occur. As the Blitz is still a very real and felt occurrence in London’s history, the museum that seeks to capture that time should do that as fully as possible. So, having learned my lesson about keeping my jokes to myself, I proceeded through the rest of the museum. The lighting was dim, the people going through the museum quiet, the rooms closed off, and the lay out confusing. Again, this may sound like a negative review of the place but it’s exactly the opposite. More than any of the readings of personal accounts or facts about the destruction of the bombings, it was the tense atmosphere found in the museum that made the Blitz seem the most real to me. I was guided by a very thorough audio tour and yet still never knew where to go. Yes, this was frustrating but imagine how living and working in that space must have been. Churchill and his staff were living and working in that dreary underground space trying to carry on as positively and normally as possible. They were in the midst of a war with a threat of an air raid always present and surrounded by the people who are relying on them to not mess up. And if that isn’t enough pressure, they were underground- the situation could, arguably, not have been more confusing and frustrating. Those feelings are still alive in the museum. Yes, it’s a tad disconcerting to feel that strange in a museum but if you push past the feeling of ‘wow, I feel a bit uncomfortable’, you realize how fitting that feeling is for the location.

I realize that I took an odd way to describing a positive side of a museum by essentially saying “it was creepy but cool!” But that’s not so much the message. The message to me is that the museum successfully steered clear of any type of gimmicky portrayal of the war rooms and offered its visitors a chance to really sense what being in the war rooms might actually have been like. Now if only we can get rid of the cheesy gift shop and lower the price…I’ll save that for another post though.

Tags: Audrey · Museums

The Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum

August 29th, 2009 · 2 Comments

     London 8.25-8.26 165


     As I entered  The Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum I noticed a sign that appropriately read “1940 – You are here.” The War Rooms especially had the effect of transporting me back through the decades and directly into the blitz years.  I let myself become immersed in the time period, trying to experience the War Rooms as they would have been experienced during the blitz. Walking through the halls and listening to the recordings of secretaries furiously punching at typewriters, phones ringing, air raid sirens screaming and the distant, guttural peal of bombs – like some Gregorian chant – , I felt as though I truly was there. 

     Living quarters were by no means spacious or luxurious. Winston Churchill and his staff lived in small bedrooms with small twin beds – some cots, even – and small furniture, and they cooked in a small kitchen. The fact that the Prime Minister lived and worked in a somewhat average space – though his accommodations were by no means completely Spartan – impressed me. It reminded me of how The Queen Mother rejoiced at the bombing of Buckingham palace and felt that she could now more closely connect and identify with her subjects. Churchill, in this way, was living in a similar fashion as those who elected him.

     The War Rooms themselves were built underground. It consisted of several levels including a sub-basement or crawl space area. The Rooms were protected by steel-reinforced concrete up to three metres thick, depending on the area. The halls seemed labyrinthine – I’m not sure if the Rooms were laid out this way throughout the blitz, or if they were re-arranged when the museum was opened, though many of the rooms were left just as they were.

     The Churchill museum was equally as interesting, though it brought up current issues as well as those from the past. One section in particular focused on Churchill’s sentiments towards the Indians. In rather “politically correct” and certainly “British” words, a placard mentioned that Churchill took a social Darwinist approach with his policies towards India, claiming that if Great Britain had not intervened, the religious factions in the country would surely turn against one another in a barbaric warfare. I was not particularly surprised by this, unfortunately, considering the problems dealing with race and ethnicity seen so frequently throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, perhaps those later problems were actually rooted within the racist history of previous British policy.

     Overall, the museum was very informative and interesting, especially the Cabinet War Rooms section. The ability of the exhibit to situate the visitor in the heat of the blitz renders this museum truly successful in meeting the goal that all museums should strive to achieve;reaching – and truly affecting – its audience.

Tags: Anya · Museums