Churchill at a Touch of a Screen

02.11.05   By Edward Rothstein

LONDON, Feb. 10 – It may be that Winston Churchill’s voice and visage have not been the objects of such concentrated homage since his state funeral, 40 years ago, when 300,000 people streamed past his coffin in a line that stretched for a mile. Or perhaps the focus of attention and affection was more urgent during the Blitz, when 200 of Hitler’s bombers strafed London each night and Churchill’s voice, with its promises of little else but blood, toil, tears and sweat, helped sustain the populace as almost 30,000 died in London alone.

Now the scale and setting are different, but in the Churchill Museum, which opens here on Friday, those models are not only invoked, but also aspired to. Churchill’s presence is strenuously condensed into 9,000 square feet, an underground extension of the bunkerlike basement “war rooms” where, as prime minister during the Second World War, Churchill met with his cabinet whenever the risk aboveground was too great. This is the first museum in Britain devoted to Churchill, and on Thursday Queen Elizabeth II came to pay tribute to to her first prime minister (when he returned to office in the 1950’s) and by all accounts her favorite.

This $12-million installation is a triumph for the director of the Cabinet War Rooms, Phil Reed, who guided the fund-raising and design of the exhibition, which the British design firm Casson Mann outfitted with the latest in museum technology. It is an aggressive exhibition: contemplation is less important than interaction, and sound and light compete for a reader’s attention. There are also qualifications that must be made about some of its interpretations.

But through it all, Churchill looms large. (A companion volume by his granddaughter Celia Sandys is being published by the Imperial War Museum.) Churchill’s voice can be heard from radio broadcasts and speeches in Parliament (“What is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror”). His words can be read on touch screens cataloging his wit (“In retreat indomitable,” he said of Field Marshal Montgomery, “in advance invincible; in victory insufferable”).

Images of Churchill range from the villainous buffoon of Nazi propaganda posters (Hitler called him “an utterly amoral repulsive creature”) to a concave white mold of his face created for Madame Tussauds wax museum. Animations projected on the walls catalog his pets, his jobs, his residences, his wartime journeys.

There are also unusual biographical relics of his sad childhood as the barely loved child of a titled father and an American mother (including a meticulously detailed “punishment book” from the Harrow School, which records that on May 25, 1891, the 16-year-old Churchill received seven strokes of the cane for mischief). And there is plenty of kitsch: Churchill’s baby rattle, sheet music for “The Man With the Big Cigar” (1941), a red velvet jumpsuit (Churchill’s dubious contribution to British fashion), one of his chomped-on Havana cigar butts.

Meanwhile, the technological energy is fervent, sometimes awkward, sometimes enlightening, sometimes unnecessary, sometimes playful. One interactive screen shows Churchill’s beloved Kent estate, Chartwell; the image shimmers to the touch and is soon shown to be a reflection in Churchill’s favorite goldfish pond. Trumping it all is a 50-foot table dividing the museum’s display room in two, a high-tech “Lifeline,” that responds (a bit sluggishly) to the movement of fingers on touch panels to “open” a timeline of Churchill’s life, potentially displaying 4,600 pages of documents, 1,150 photographs and 206 animations, many erupting in sound and light.

Nothing, in fact could be more unusual than the Cabinet War Rooms, which frame any experience of the new museum. In those rooms, which became part of the Imperial War Museum in 1984, sparse residences and meeting rooms evoke the stringent basement life of the wartime 1940’s. There, Churchill had the only toilet with plumbing, and the nerve center of the British war effort depended on maps, pushpins and dangling telephone wires. The War Rooms make it clear that Churchill’s leadership took place in a context of scarcity, risk and struggle.

The Churchill Museum maintains the basement aesthetic, with low ceilings, exposed support beams, visible rivets and screws, and a look of bare cement, but it is trying to establish and codify Churchill’s reputation for the 21st century, an enterprise that it believes depends on sensation, attraction and interaction. Because the War Rooms lead into the Churchill Museum, the multimedia biographical narrative actually begins in 1940, when Churchill took office as prime minister, and proceeds chronologically, culminating in a video triptych of his funeral in 1965.

The “Lifeline” then slices the room, with the other half devoted to a chapterlike accounting of Churchill from 1874 until 1940, whereupon the visitor is led back into the War Rooms and a Britain under siege.

The museum’s centering on the war, of course, presumes Churchill’s heroic stature. And Churchill’s reputation still rides very high: in 2002 a BBC poll ranked him as the most admired Briton in history. But the technological excess seems to show some anxiety about whether this can be taken for granted.

Indeed, Churchill’s reputation has been subject to skeptical scrutiny by scholars and biographers for the past few decades. His flaws and misjudgments have been detailed. Critics have drawn attention to his Victorian racial views and militarism. And in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, though he has been invoked as a model for his opposition to the appeasement of Hitler, he has also been dismissed as an irrelevant distraction, offering the wrong lessons at the wrong time.

Last fall, a poll of British academic specialists displaced his usually premier position in similar polls and ranked his postwar Labor Party successor, Clement Atlee, as the greatest 20th-century British prime minister, praising his “welfare state reforms.” (Churchill called Atlee “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”) This result seemed to give contemporary political allegiances more importance than the once-unquestioned accomplishments of Churchill’s leadership. Another recent survey, according to newspaper accounts, found that 15 percent of British 15-year-olds thought Churchill was the founder of an insurance company, whose recent advertisements featured a Churchillian bulldog.

The museum, with its eye on the popular audience, doesn’t want its prospective younger audience to lose attention nor a belief in Churchill’s heroic stature to falter. It also expects the 300,000 annual visitors to the Cabinet War Rooms to grow significantly in number. Some of the activities, like an interactive display about wartime cryptography, are clearly meant for younger visitors.

Mr. Reed acknowledges that the museum’s purpose is not to create a detached account of Churchill’s life and times. “We have accepted Churchill as a great leader and a great man,” he said recently. But he also wanted the museum to avoid hagiography: “Great people are not great all of the time,” he said.

This means that there are qualifications throughout. Churchill himself is cited for calling his World War II diversion of British troops from Italy to fight in Greece an “error in judgment.” And particularly in the account of his prewar life, there are the standard scandals and controversies to account for: his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915 after his Dardanelles plan led to the Gallipoli disaster of World War I; his zealous pursuit of violent anarchists or strikers; his opposition in the early 1930’s to any form of Indian independence.

One approach to such issues is found in voting stations the museum has set up, asking viewers to evaluate whether, say, Churchill’s views on India were racist, based on information given in touch screens and historic news video.

But one problem is that this deference to democratic evaluation is not really accompanied by sufficient information; more detail is wanted throughout, and given the technological sophistication on display it really could be made readily available to the curious. Of course, this is a lot to ask of a museum that tries to take stock of an entire lifetime, particularly one as extraordinary as Churchill’s. But there is too little illumination about matters that deserve it: the nature of Churchill’s responsibility for the Dardanelles campaign, for example, or Churchill’s strategic thinking about World War II.

Moreover, while it is understandable that the wartime leadership looms large here, in many ways Churchill was at his most heroic not during the war but in the decade before it. It was then that he, and very few others, saw clearly what was happening in Germany, and he persisted in his public stand even as he was ostracized as a warmonger. That chapter of Churchill’s political life is curiously underemphasized; the opposition he faced seems muted; his visionary courage less imposing than it really was.

No matter. Despite its flaws and surface sensations, the Churchill Museum overwhelms a viewer, not solely with its technology, but also with the impression of immensity that Churchill’s life and persona still put forward, and the attention it still demands.