The new £5million gallery houses the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition containing Lord Ashcroft’s collection of Victoria Crosses (VC), the largest in the world. The awards, which range from the Crimean to the Falklands wars, are on public display for the first time alongside 48 VCs and 31 George Crosses (GCs) already held by the Museum. The VC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s premier award for extreme gallantry in the face of the enemy, while the GC is Britain’s most prestigious civil decoration.
Visitors to the Lord Ashcroft Gallery’s Extraordinary Heroes exhibition can discover the personal stories behind each medal in a state-of-the-art new space filled with interactive touch-screens, multimedia platforms and original interpretation.
Alongside the precious medal groups in the gallery there are many objects on display for the first time. They include the extensively damaged backpack worn by Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC. In Afghanistan in 2008, during a covert patrol of a Taliban bomb factory, Matt Croucher threw himself onto a grenade smothering its explosion. This quick, decisive action saved the lives of his comrades and thanks to the pack he too, remarkably, escaped with few injuries. Also on display for the first time in years will be the diving suit worn by James Magennis in his VC action. Magennis overcame exhaustion and danger to make several dives in the Johore Straits to place limpet mines on a target in 1945. The first VC acquired by Lord Ashcroft was awarded to Magennis.
To mark the opening of the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, the Imperial War Museum commissioned significant new works for its Collections. Among them is a portrait by acclaimed war photographer Don McCullin of Private Johnson Beharry VC, whose series of brave actions included moving his column out of an ambush and carrying wounded comrades to safety in Iraq in 2004.
To find out more about the motivation behind all the medals, visitors can choose from a range of interactive touch-screens, life stories, video montages and sound clips to delve into the life stories and actions of all featured recipients.
In contrast to the multimedia offerings, visitors are confronted with a number of large models recreating aspects of some famous VC and GC actions. For example, a life-size shark, relating to Cadet David Hay’s 1941 GC action of saving shipwreck survivors from shark infested waters, hangs from the exhibition ceiling so that the enormity of the task faced by Hay is literally unmissable.
The VCs and GCs featured in the gallery are arranged by seven different qualities – leadership, sacrifice, aggression, skill, initiative, endurance, and boldness – encouraging visitors to examine an individual’s reaction to the difficult decisions behind their feat of bravery. The Lord Ashcroft Gallery aims to intrigue, inspire and amaze by re-telling forgotten stories of bravery that show how, when faced with extreme situations, some people can do extraordinary things.
Diane Lees, Director-General of the Imperial War Museum, said: “The Imperial War Museum is delighted to be opening this new gallery which will ensure Lord Ashcroft’s remarkable collection of VCs has a public home. Our mission is to enrich people’s understanding of war and its impact on ordinary people, so we are very grateful to Lord Ashcroft for enabling us to share the stories of some extraordinary heroes through these medals.” Lord Ashcroft said:“My fascination with bravery, and in particular the Victoria Cross, goes back to my childhood, so I’m thrilled to make possible a new gallery at the Imperial War Museum which will help audiences of all ages discover some of the most gallant actions in history. The Museum’s reputation for helping people understand the experience of modern conflicts is unrivalled, and I’m confident that members of the public will be inspired and motivated by the exceptional courage of the ordinary men, women and children featured in the outstanding exhibition.”The Lord Ashcroft Gallery also covers the history of the VCs and GCs establishment; information on the importance of the VCGC Association to its members; reflection on the loss and grief of bereaved relatives of VC and GC holders; original illustrations of famous actions by renowned British artists; and copies of vintage comic books The Victor and The Hornet which resonate with older visitors. An official book accompanying the exhibition, Extraordinary Heroes, was published by Osprey in October 2010.
Image Credits: IWM