Great Briton in context

4th March 2005 at 00:00
A museum dedicated to Churchill offers fascinating insights into his character. Lynne Wallis reports.

Churchill Museum and the War Cabinet Rooms. Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AQ Tel: 0207 766 01302 Email:

The underground Cabinet War Rooms, off Whitehall - the cavernous set of rooms and corridors where Sir Winston Churchill and his cabinet directed the Second World War - have been a popular school visit since they opened to the public in l984. The rooms have now been expanded and visitors can see the brand new pound;6m Churchill Museum, the only museum dedicated to the war leader, deemed by a recent BBC poll to be "the Greatest Briton".

The high-tech museum contains thousands of images, documents and film and sound recordings, which explore the man behind the world-famous image, the cigar-smoking leader with a penchant for hats who became one of the 20th century's most iconic figures.

The museum divides Churchill's life into five "chapters": the young man, the maverick politician, the wilderness years between the wars, the war years and the Cold War statesman.

The "spin" of the museum is the Lifeline, an electronic display set into a l3-metre long table which puts Churchill's life into historical context; visitors will be able to access every single day of Churchill's 90-year life and find out what happened on that day, from national and world events, catastrophes such as Hiroshima and the sinking of the Titanic, to the release of films including The Wizard of Oz and King Kong.

There are cabinets displaying items donated by Churchill's family, such as his red "siren" romper suit, cigars, photographs, letters, hats and military paraphernalia. His unhappy childhood is described, and visitors may find it hard to reconcile the stammering diffident schoolboy, who craved a parental love and affection that never materialised, with the indomitable leader whose "finest hour" saved Great Britain.

Some may be surprised to learn that this heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking legend, who suffered from depression and changed his political allegiances several times during his life, boasted about taking alcohol before, during and after meals - what a contrast to the healthy lifestyles our mineral-water-swigging ministers of today like to promote.

The museum covers history and citizenship curriculum subjects up to GCSE; for key stage 2 for example, visitors will find material for "Britain since the l930s", and for KS3 there is plenty for "the 20th century and beyond".

Jo Hunt, the museum learning officer, says: "It's not enough just to talk about Hitler when covering the Second World War. GCSE coursework, such as the image of women, bravery and war propaganda, can all be followed in interesting ways here. We run workshops and learning days for schools in our learning centre."

School visitors can follow one of the museum's "trails", where pupils extract specific information relevant to their study path, for example on "home front", "appeasement" or "citizenship".

Schools can also book illustrated talks on a range of subjects, including "British Wartime Propaganda" and "Churchill's finest hour".

Heather Sullivan, headteacher of Alexandra Junior School in Hounslow, who attended a teachers' open day in January, was impressed. "I'll have to be well prepared and decide what we want to get out of it, as there's so much here to see in a limited time," she says.

"I'm not so interested in him winning the war for the Allies, but more in his teamwork, and the fact that he liked to involve unlikely allies and get them on side. He certainly had an interesting leadership style."

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