Friday, 4 February 2005

A New Theme Park in Whitehall

"Tonight I met the PM". This is how I had planned to start this post until things started to unravel slightly. A friend of mine (and let's face it, I only have one close one, so it is the same that appeared on these "pages" earlier), had invited me to tag along to a preview of the new Churchill Museum soon to be opened at the Cabinet War Rooms. He had misleadingly (it appeared) sold it to me by telling me that Blair might make an appearance. To be honest I would have gone anyway: can't really resist the appeal of free canapés sprinkled with a bit of culture. And I had never been to the War Rooms before so it was a good opportunity. OK the PM wasn't there but I almost met him once before already (back in the days when I worked for the National Army Museum); so who cares...?

After going down to what if effectively a basement, we were ushered into a large empty room where the Vice President and Chairman of the Imperial War Museum, Admiral Sir Jock Slater GCB LVO DL greeted us. We were given drink. When the room was quite full of people Sir Jock clapped in his hands to ask for silence and introduced the new gallery, telling us it had cost as little as £6M and inviting us to go and have a look. We complied

The new gallery/museum will be opened by the Queen (and probably the PM) on the 11th; this is scheduled to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the death of the great man (He died on 24/01/65). Most people know what a character Churchill was mostly for his galvanising Britain to stand up against the Nazis during the Second World War. He is however much more than that. He painted 572 paintings, wrote about 100 books for which he won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1953. He was voted the Greatest Briton ever by the "Great British Public" last year. A truly larger than life character. And this is what a museum dedicated to the man should make you feel.

We had been warned before going in that the gallery was "challengingly engaging". That perhaps we would need 10 year olds to show us how things worked. That proved to be almost true. While the exhibition space is rather drab and not very "engaging" (it is grey, dark and maze-like), the exhibition is technically ingenious to the point of becoming gimmicky. You have screens showing films and sound bits in many places, which is they sort of things you would expect but you also have touch screens that allow you to "re-paint" some of Churchill's paintings colour by colour by moving your finger over the "canvas" or to *cough* play with his goldfish. There are also carved pieces of wood representing Churchill or other important military chiefs (Stalin, Roosevelt,...) with sensors attached which you can move about on a table and get some interactive visual content depending of which part of the table the piece has been moved. Perfect for Children I imagine. The pièce de resistance is a 50-foot long (I thought this country used decimal measures these day?!) interactive ‘Lifeline’. A long table-like screen with sensor pads on the sides (of the type you find on laptops) allowing you to browse the files of the years of Churchill's life. This is complete with sound effects, pictures and animations. Have a look at some pictures

When I first walked in the room, my only interest was for the gadgets described above. They drew my attention and I just moved down the aisles going from one the next, figuring out how they worked and what they did and loosing interest as soon as I had found out. Only on the second take, once I had exhausted the novelty, did I start to register interesting and/or funny details about Churchill's live and personality. Now I know I am a unique individual and I like to cultivate my differences but I don't think I am intrinsically that different from my fellow human beings and I have a feeling that most people will react in the same fashion. What is slightly worrying is I know myself to have a longer attention span than most people; this means that most visitors will probably give up after the first tour of the gallery. I think the focus is put far too much on Churchill, the politician, which is already his better know face. I was quite surprised towards the end of my first round (after having seen artefacts on the war and even footages of his funeral) to find myself suddenly looking at his earlier years, a little as if they had been put there as an afterthought. All in all and however fun it was to be taken back to a childlike frame of mind (not), I think the gallery fails its basic ambition as it doesn't really bring a sense of who this extraordinary man was to the visitor. A missed opportunity, I think. Still, I got a goody bag at the end with a biography by John Keegan, a few postcards and a booklet on the museum...

Oh, and something which is obviously not mentioned in the exhibition: Sir Winston was probably one of us.

An interesting point, which I discussed with my friend afterward, is the way a couple of people my friend knew there (one of them is 80 odd years old, although of a very young disposition) treated us. Although we are not a couple, they treated us as such. One would have expected people to feel ill at ease and try to avoid even the thought but the fact that they made the assumption in the first place surely proves that they are happy with at least the concept of two men in a relationship. Nice one!


Addendum, Erratum and private joke - 01:50pm

My Friend is moaning that I am making him look bad by saying he mislead me about the PM attending at the event. He was mislead too. What a gullible creature he can be...
Happy now?


Updated 10/02/05

Added a link to pictures of the place on the site of the company who designed the exhibition.

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