Exhibition: A Family in Wartime, Imperial War Museum, London, until December 31 2012
Too often we think about history in terms of facts and figures, forgetting that these represent what happened in real people’s lives.
But the IWM’s new exhibition, which follows the story of the Allpress family during the Second World War, proves the power of understanding the everyday experience that lies behind a historical event.
William and Alice Allpress lived in Lambeth, South London, with their ten children. Two of their sons were called up to the front line, their daughters joined the Women’s Voluntary service to help the War effort at home, and their youngest boy was evacuated to Wokingham. They represent a cross-section of typical Wartime British society.
William worked for Southern Rail, and visitors can see the uniform he would have worn or explore the old timetables he used at work.
Brightly coloured "Mickey Mouse" gas masks - like the ones that would have belonged to the children - are displayed alongside the puzzles and games that would have kept them entertained in the Anderson during an air raid.
There is also a reproduction of the family kitchen and living room, allowing visitors to see the harsh reality of a life on rationing, which lasted 14-and-a-half years.
It was not just food that was restricted; clothes and material were rationed, too, making the selection of household items limited. Restaurants even had to chain their spoons to the tables as cutlery became an item worth thieving.
“What makes this type of display so popular is that these are the stories we have all heard, passed down to us in folklore,” explains Terry Charman, Head Historian at the IWM, who was a personal friend of Betty McCann (nee Allpress) and her husband Cyril.
“While attention is often given to what happened on the battlefield, there were only five million men in the forces compared with 40 million back home.
"What people forget is that it was just as dangerous to be a civilian as it was to be a soldier during WW2. The blitz saw London bombed for 57 consecutive nights, during which 42,000 people were killed.”
Interestingly, of all ten Allpress children the only two who didn’t survive past the War were the daughters who suffered from a heart condition. Harry, who was evacuated from Dunkirk and received the Military Medal for his bravery, is the only living Allpress today and helped the IWM bring his family’s story into the spotlight.
Visitors are encouraged to get involved with the Allpress story through interactive features, such as comments screens under the exhibits. Much like social media platforms, this allows you to scroll through other opinions and anecdotes before adding your own ideas to the mix.
You can also watch snippets of classic War time cinema, listen to audio interviews with surviving family members or climb inside a reproduction Anderson shelter.
The IWM also uses the exhibition to showcase some of their extensive collection of War paintings. They own the second largest stock of Modern Art in Britain and the sample on display shows the work of the official War painters who were commissioned by the National Gallery to produce images from the home front.
An eerie depiction of a damaged London skyline, still smoking after the blitz hangs alongside cheery images of women dishing up food in a canteen during an air raid. As Allpress's daughter, Nellie, puts it: "We were all so anxious to stay alive, we just sort of carried on."
The power of the exhibition lies in the fact that this could be any family. It’s hard not to explore the display without wondering about the experience of your own parents, grandparents or even great grandparents, offering a new appreciation for what they endured.
- Open 10am-6pm (closed December 24-26).