Horrible Histories: The Terrible Trenches at the Imperial War Museum, London
Horrible Histories: The Terrible Trenches a special exhibition about life on the western front in the First World War, with a link up with the Scholastic Books Horrible Histories and TV programmes. The link up was very evident in the style of graphics and the audiovisual materials, and this was a good thing, giving a feeling of a house style, which provided a familiar way in for our children.
The exhibition begins with a short cartoon film which briefly, simply and accurately tells the story of the causation of World War I through the narration of a rat, who becomes a guide through the rest of the exhibition. There is then a series of exhibits about clothing, equipment, food, personal hygiene and living conditions in the trenches. This moves on to the topics of weapons, protection devices and spying on the enemy. Towards the end there is a series of short and arresting contemporary film clips showing the reality and a quiz on surviving the trenches which tests what the children have learned: our 12 year-old knew all the answers.
The information is presented with replica objects to touch, dressing up, audiovisuals and display cases of real artefacts. The hands-on element is very well done: it is fun to lift the bucket lid and see the poo and smelling the poison gases was a must, as were the periscopes. This aspect was quite brilliant: the hands-on related to the topic properly, they were not broken and they were placed next to real artefacts which related directly.
In many ways The Terrible Trenches is excellent. Very good for boys particularly aged (perhaps) under 14: it felt quite primary rather than secondary school to me. We spent about forty minutes in there and did have real conversations afterwards about what great-grandad had experienced. It also left me wondering about the Eastern Front which we never hear about. Perhaps a little pricey, but then the rest of the museum is (excellent) and free. We had lunch in the café and ate everything up, even though this too was not cheap. The adjacent park is good for a rest break and you could bring your own sandwiches and it them there to save money.
My only hesitation was about the tone. Horrible Histories specialise in a jokey approach with a focus on comic strip violence, the weird and the scatological. This gets lots of kids into history, which is marvellous for them and their history-loving parents. But was the exhibition having a laugh about what amounted the holocaust of a generation of European young men?
On reflection, I feel that, although that is a danger, this exhibition just stayed the right side of the line on this. Children will leave having a real appreciation of the horrors of life in the trenches and having seen real footage from the period. The gags were mainly confined to lice and loos, so within the bounds of contemporary "Tommy" humour. There were no jokes about killing or death. The Imperial War Museum can also reasonably argue that they have a free, serious and standing exhibition on the First World War, including the favourite and smelly Trenches Experience.
Horrible Histories: The Terrible Trenches runs until 31 October, 2009
Adult £4.95, child £2.50, concessions £3.95
Children aged five and under go free.