Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms

Phil Reed


Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms

Clive Steps King Charles Street London SW1A 2AQ England

The Churchill Museum Project: Presenting an Icon

When the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms were opened to the public under the aegis of the Imperial War Museum in 1984, only one third of the site's full footprint was made accessible.  Nevertheless, this uniquely preserved time capsule of Winston Churchill's underground wartime shelter and meeting place attracted a growing audience in its next fifteen years, bringing a regular 300,000 plus visitors per annum from around the globe.  They came, intrigued by the opportunity to walk the same corridors as Churchill, see the unchanged historic rooms, taste the atmosphere of those desperate days and to experience the very scene of so many momentous decisions that influenced not just the course of the war, but also the course of history.

After years of negotiation with Government, developers, engineers and finance people, in 2003 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (now Prime Minister), The Rt Hon Gordon Brown, opened a series of historic rooms, which had been inaccessible to the public since the war, and which we had restored, using historic records shots. They gave a far more domestic view of Churchill, by giving access to his kitchen, his dining room and the room he set aside for his beloved wife.

We then tackled our final long term aim: the creation of a museum of the life of Winston Churchill, the Rooms' most famous resident and the man soon to be voted Greatest Briton ever, in short, Britain's - and to a large extent the world's - greatest iconic figure of the twentieth century. We had carefully considered the raison d'etre of such a museum and concluded that, nearly forty years after his death, Churchill merited a museum in his name.  In deciding this we closely examined the whole issue of what makes an individual ls"great' and concluded that it lay in singular achievements of historic magnitude, but mixed into a life with normal human failings and foibles.  People like their great people to be human and their great achievements to be both above and beyond the norm of human beings, but, at the same time, realistically something a human being can aspire to.

As we then considered how we might fairly portray this life, the issues that faced us were myriad, but the most significant ones were:

  • How do we portray honestly, ls"warts and all', the full life of a man who commands respect, even uncritical adoration, not only amongst a strange cross section of world leadership (from Arafat to Netemyahu, from Chernomyerdin to Bush) but also from countless ordinary citizens across the planet.
  • How do we illustrate all the different elements of his life: the vast political career so full of incident, the family man, the soldier, the author and orator, the pastimes, habits, quirks and failings of a complex man of many parts
  • How do we engage and sustain the engagement of the visitor while providing the full, detailed and authoritative profile of his life, times, achievements and heritage
  • How do we present this story, the questions, the controversies without actually presenting answers; how do we enable, empower and encourage the visitors to research and decide for themselves, to learn, but without our simply teaching them.

It was vital that we should not avoid any difficult questions about Churchill's character, style, beliefs and deeds: he was a man who, throughout his political life and since his death, has faced a great many accusations against him: bad or just callous strategic judgement, including some that cost many lives; excessive drinking; racist attitudes and values; what we would now call ls"cronyism' and enjoying benefits which any politician in today's society would be condemned for. 

With such a well-known figure of British and world history there were certain subjects, events, characteristics, and of course, famous statements and speeches that had to be included in any exhibition of his life. As we developed the storyline, the challenge became principally: how, within a relatively small space, to make a mass of information available to visitors, without inducing information overload and fatigue.

The Churchill Museum has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Council of Europe Museum Award for 2006.  Over two years after it opened, it is still widely cited for its excellence of display method, and a week never passes without visits from other museum professionals, keen to see how they might benefit from what we have done.  But the greatest accolades come from the many public visitors to the museum who engage, enjoy, learn, think and leave - often only after several hours - full of admiration for what they have experienced. Much of the credit for the success in achieving the visitor's engagement and sustaining it throughout a long haul, goes to our designers, Casson Mann, who, by working with a number of different audio-visual companies, found design solutions to the problems of conveying both a quantum of information and in portraying and involving the visitor in issues which no object could come close to doing.

Nowhere is their skill better illustrated than in the electronic ls"lifeline' which both delineates the two halves of Churchillls"s life - from 1940 to his death and from birth to 1940 - and acts as an entertaining, involving and immensely informative alternative to case displays and wall graphics throughout the visit.

Churchill famously once said that history would be his judgehellip;and he would write the history. And he did.  But now we are writing his history.  And the public are judging himhellip;and finding him worthy of his place in history.


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