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Review Exhibition - Meagre ration for war stories

Once Upon a Wartime

Imperial War Museum

To 30 October 2011

Admission: Adults #163;5.95, children #163;3.95

The Imperial War Museum, one suspects, wanted its new Once Upon a Wartime exhibition to function like a good wartime story: to be instructive, but also charming, engaging, human.

It almost works. But, unlike a good book, it neglects the importance of a proper ending.

The exhibition examines wartime issues of loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity through the plots of five well-known children's war novels.

It begins with Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, the story of a farm horse drafted into the cavalry during the First World War. There are lots of hands-on illustrations of the life of a war horse: pupils can lift a 1kg weight and try to imagine a horse's load of 130kg.

And there is a genuinely moving 1914 letter to Lord Kitchener from two "troubled little Britishers", pleading for their pony to be spared the equine draft.

Indeed, the early part of the exhibition is full of just such small moments of poignancy. Carrie's War by Nina Bawden comes next, an illustration of wartime separation. Once again, there are nice touches: an evacuee's suitcase includes a 1940s bar of Dairy Milk; a packing guide for parents includes "one pair of knickers" and "one vest".

A mock-up of one of the character's kitchens includes interesting wartime facts, written on the cupboard doors. Did you know, for example, that 1940s tea rations allowed each person 20-25 cups a week?

Next up is Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners, illustrating the excitement of war. It is hard not to smile wryly when looking at the display of one boy's wartime diary, corrected in red ink by his teacher. "Try to vary your sentences more," she writes, as he recounts his weekend hunt for cast-off materiel.

But there is a slight cursoriness to this section: it appears to consist merely of in-jokes for adults. The characters' ersatz fortress is recreated in corrugated iron; wartime comic strips are plastered to the wall. Alongside more recognisable characters from The Beano is a comic strip entitled "Cocky Dick: he's smart and slick".

Where the exhibition really falls apart, however, is where it moves beyond the home front. Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword - used to examine wartime survival - charts the adventures of four Polish children as they travel through post-war Europe.

Throughout the exhibition, each book is illustrated with photographs of modern-day children, intended to represent its characters. The Silver Sword "refugees" look rudely, almost offensively, healthy: more likely to have emerged from a playground fight than from war-torn Europe.

A series of interactive computer screens then invites contemporary children to see if they would have made the same choices as their fictional Polish counterparts. Some questions are salutary lessons in wartime prioritising: "What do the children need before they start their journey? A) shoes; B) a suitcase; C) a map". But most are bizarre plot spoilers: "A chimpanzee is in your truck. How do you get it out? A) offer it fruit; B) speak to it quietly; C) give it a cigarette and matches".

Far more moving - but hidden away in a small cabinet - is the 1949 book Children in Europe, which Serraillier used in his research. On the cover, a boy of three or four looks out with wary, mistrustful eyes. Next to him, a girl a few years older wears an expression of hunger, fatigue and unbearable world-weariness.

Even more cursory is the space devoted to Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley, which tells the story of an African child soldier, transplanted to the ganglands of south London. This is supposed to be an exploration of identity, but in reality it is a single, somewhat poorly equipped room. The only real exhibit is an M16 rifle, commonly used by child soldiers: it is 3ft long and unequivocally grown-up.

Once again, the most powerful item - this time a photo of a real-life child soldier - is tucked away in a small case. Where are the testimonies from other child soldiers? The photos? The comparisons with gang warfare on British streets? I had assumed that a doorway would lead into another Little Soldier room; when I realised it was the exit, I had to check to be sure I hadn't taken a wrong turn.

On the way out, a small sign indicates a book the size of a playing card. These were developed during the Second World War so that they could be easily taken into the air-raid shelter. This is fascinating; it is also an aside, an afterthought. Unfortunately, the same could be said of much of the entire exhibition.

The verdict: 610.

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