Tucked away on the fourth floor of the museum, visiting the Lord Ashcroft Gallery feels a bit like climbing into the loft of a big old house. And the incredible personal stories, medals, diaries, old comics and items of clothing only serve to feed the feeling you’re exploring a wonderful attic room.
The basis for Extraordinary Heroes is Lord Ashcroft’s collection of Victoria Crosses – medals given for acts of extreme bravery carried out under direct enemy fire. The collection of 164 awards, which date from the Crimean War to the Falklands War, are on display alongside 48 Victoria Crosses already held by the museum. There are also 31 George Crosses (medals given for extreme bravery in peacetime, and in wartime away from battle) in the exhibition.
The medals themselves are striking: the colourful ribbons and display cases highlight the fact that these are incredibly special items. But it’s the stories behind the medals that really come to life in this exhibition.
The Extraordinary Heroes display has been laid out in seven themes:
Rather than creating a timeline of medals, this display acknowledges that incredible bravery through endurance deserved the same recognition in the 1800s as it does today.
“There may be different types of bravery but the one thing in common about the people commemorated here is that they had a choice. They could have gone the other way and looked after themselves but they chose not to.”
And this exhibition is more than a set of medals in cases. Innovative boxes, listening posts, video, interactive touch-screens, comic books and transcribed diaries and letters all work together to create a really immersive experience, and mean this is a display that’ll appeal to the whole family.
So, alongside the medals, you can see the ripped backpack worn by Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC. When he tripped a wire in a Taliban bomb factory in 2008, Croucher threw himself and his backpack onto the grenade, smothering its explosion, and saving his and his comrades’ lives. You can also see the diving suit worn by Acting Leading Seaman James Magennis in his VC action, setting mines in 1945. And the goggles worn by Sergeant Thomas Mottershead VC in 1917.
Children (and adults!) will enjoy “collecting” seven medals, one for each of the themes, by stamping a paper medal in an extraordinary hero treasure hunt.
I loved the little hand-written notes on some of the cases “Only 18″, “Beating the Blitz”, and “Dr VC” – they made me feel as though I was sharing in a really well-loved, personal collection.
It’s the focus on the personal that makes this gallery well worth a visit. I suggest anyone who might be less interested in the big impersonal bits of machinery in the main gallery of the Imperial War Museum heads to this fantastic “attic space” and enjoy a few quieter moments reflecting on the lives of some extraordinary people.
The Lord Ashcroft Gallery opens to the public on 12 November. Entrance to the Imperial War Museum is free. See more images at www.flickr.com/photos/zozo79/sets/72157625347732654/