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The coolest war museum in the world - Curt Yeomans

Let me just say this now, no war museum in the world will ever top the Imperial War Museum in London.

I'm not even sure there are too many other museums - except for the Louvre, of course - that can top it. The Imperial War Museum is actually a six-branch system.

The main branch, in London's Southwark region, has a pair of 15-inch naval guns in the front, outdoor plaza. So, when you're walking up to the museum from Lambeth Road, what you see is this beautiful, neoclassical, red-bricked, domed building with a pair of giant guns aimed just over your head.

It's really quite a dramatic image to see.

So, what is the Imperial War Museum, other than a museum about war, you may be asking yourself?

Well, it's pretty much a museum about war. I mean the name almost says it all here. However, what the name doesn't tell you is which wars are featured. The museum is devoted to telling the story of every war that the United Kingdom has been involved in since 1914, or World War I, if you want to get technical about it.

In fact, much of the museum focuses on World War I and World War II. They each get their own lengthy section. The entire main exhibit hall, at the entrance to the museum, features weapons and vehicles from those two wars, including an M4 Sherman tank; a gun from a World War I German U-boat; a V2 rocket, and the smallest, surviving boat used in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.

And then, there is all the aircraft hanging from the ceiling, including an observation car from a Zeppelin; a submarine Spitfire Mark IA; a P-51 Mustang; a Focke Wulf 190, and a Heinkel 162.

The main exhibit hall also includes a small, walk-through exhibit on life aboard a submarine during World War II, which includes a preserved, dead rat in a glass case - just to show the rats were there, too.

For the kiddies, there is also a game where they have to turn dials and knobs to see if they can properly raise and lower a submarine.

There's also an exhibit on the Holocaust, and interactive exhibits that simulate life in World War I trenches, and life in London during "The Blitz" of 1940.

Outside the "The Blitz Experience," is something I thoroughly recommend, partly because it is so entertaining. It's a guidebook for British citizens on how to deal with American soldiers who were coming to the island nation before the D-Day invasion of 1944.

It basically says, "You'll think the American G.I.'s are brutish, cavemen when you see them in public, and they will think you're arrogant, and lack the ability to feel emotions, but it's all just a cultural misunderstanding. Come on, give them a chance. It'll be fun!"

Many of the other wars, conflicts and incidents that Americans are familiar with, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korea Conflict, the Vietnam War, and the 1991 conflict with Iraq, are summed up in a few windows in a section on the Cold War.

There is also an exhibit on the spy games of the Cold War, which basically starts by saying every preconceived notion about Cold War spies that you gained from watching James Bond movies should be thrown out the door before entering the exhibit. Most of the items in this exhibit were not available for viewing at the time I visited the museum, though.

Now, all of this stuff is immensely interesting to me. I mean I minored in history in college (with an emphasis on military history), so, of course, I was going to be drawn to a museum like this.

It took me three hours to get through the museum, which is about the time they tell you up front it will take to see everything. But, despite the length of time it takes to make it through the palce, I do have to recommend it to anyone who visis London. It is a really neat learning opportunity.

And, I promise, as surreal as the big guns in front of the museum are, they will not fire on you.

Curt Yeomans covers education for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at cyeomans@news-daily.com.