Virtually Marking Victory with the Imperial War Museums

By the Spring of 1945, Germany had been on the defensive for approximately a year. Allied forces continued a steady advance across German occupied territory, and ultimately into Germany itself. 

Finally, with Hitler dead and Berlin under Red Army control, on May 7 and again on May 8, senior representatives of Germany’s High Command signed documents declaring an unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers. May 8 was declared Victory in Europe (V-E) Day in the United States and the United Kingdom — and celebrations erupted in large cities and small towns alike.

Unfortunately, on the 75th Anniversary of V-E Day, many large-scale public observances of the day are being cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Like many other aspects of life during this pandemic, some events are being moved online. Such is the case for V-E Day as well.

True to its mission, although its physical locations are closed, the United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museums (IWM) have assembled an extensive and informative website to guide viewers through the major events and themes surrounding V-E Day.

The Imperial War Museums have an extensive collection of wartime artifacts such as this Willys Jeep. It was a gift to the British Red Cross in Italy by the Commander of the US 5th Army. 

The IMW have a long history of documenting war and its consequences. Founded as the National War Museum in 1917, even before the Allied victory in World War I was certain, the museum was established to recognize the contributions of all elements of British society in both fighting the war and supporting the war effort. 

The name was quickly changed to the Imperial War Museum to also acknowledge the critical role played by the militaries, governments and peoples of the British Empire. A committee was formed to begin collecting artifacts, weapons, documents, photographs and other items of interest. King George V formally opened the museum’s first exhibits in London’s Chrystal Palace in 1920. 

This small fishing boat, named the Tamzine, was used in the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk in the spring of 1940.

Through the years, the scope of the IWM broadened to include preserving the stories and chronicling the experiences related to all armed conflicts fought by British, Empire and Commonwealth forces, as well as studying the impact wars and armed conflict have upon societies.  Naturally, as the mission grew  so did the collections. Today there are five distinct museum locations now comprising the Imperial War Museums. The main museum is located in a former mental hospital in the London neighborhood of Lambeth.

In preparation for the centennial of World War I, the IWM – London underwent a $67 million renovation in 2014 to update elements of the museum building and redesign the exhibits. Visitors now enter a four story atrium adorned with articles of war from the past one hundred years, among them a WWI era cannon, a Spitfire fighter aircraft, a V2 Rocket, a Harrier jet, and a car destroyed in a Baghdad bombing.  Wrapping around the atrium are five floors housing the exhibits which transport you through ten decades of British military history, heroics, frustrations, adventures and struggles. The focus though is not a dry and seemingly endless litany of facts about dates, battles, units and weapons, but rather a detailed examination of the impact of wars as told through contemporary accounts and a tremendous collection of artifacts.

This Spitfire fighter aircraft hangs in the open atrium of the IWM – London. It reportedly flew 57 combat missions during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The IMW’s specially crafted website to commemorate the end of World War II is designated V75. The site’s design aligns very neatly to the overall approach taken by the IWM to developing its physical exhibits and other special programming on war and its impact. Historical summaries, pictures, accounts and cross references to multiple artifacts associated with the end of World War II from the IWM archives are brought together to paint a picture of the experience of war — usually through the eyes of ordinary soldiers and civilians — in order for the viewer to consider, assess and contemplate. While that is more challenging for a two dimensional website, V75 still provides thoughtful overviews and interesting insights.

A German Enigma Machine, which was used to encrypt German diplomatic and military communications. British cryptographers were able to decipher German communications which greatly assisted the Allied war effort.

V75, like other detail rich IWM websites, spreads out like a spider web. Subjects such as the origins of the famous “V” for wartime victory, civilian celebrations in London on V-E Day, or the general election of 1945 lead the viewer to a trove of additional information about other events surrounding the end of World War II and its aftermath.

On Friday, May 8, the V75 website will feature a four-minute audio compilation combining first hand observations and recollections from V-E day, drawn from the extensive archives of the IWM. Britons are being asked to take time to listen to the recordings and reflect on the sacrifices of the World War II years and what the ultimate victory means for them today. 

On the same day, the V75 site will also unveil several new works of art providing contemporary examinations by various artists, including visual arts, spoken word, music and poetry. Later this summer, the V75 website will be updated to include materials and references related to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 and Victory in Japan (V-J) Day on August 15.

This Union Jack was carried by the British delegation that surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942. During the war, it was hidden by British prisoners. On September 12, 1945, it was raised over the Municipal Building in Singapore after the Japanese surrendered their forces in southeast Asia.  

Commemorations allow us to look back at what was lost, but also at what was gained — and what brought us to where we are today. Spending some time at the Imperial War Museums V75 site reminds us of the sacrifices and losses sustained by an earlier generation in the fight against fascism. It also reveals to us that the world we live in today is still shaped by that war and those sacrifices.

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