The history of humanity has been punctuated by periods of bloody warfare. Far from forgetting the long shadow that war casts, however, military museums around the world aim to preserve, share and examine the history of conflicts, from the American Civil War to the World Wars.
These institutions, such as London’s Imperial War Museum and the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, offer a fascinating – if sombre – insight into the lives of those who have been caught in the crossfire of conflict.
From collections of bullet-scarred fighter planes, sunken warships retrieved from the ocean and suits of armour dating back as far as the Middle Ages, these 10 war museums from around the world explore the long and bloody history of conflict.
1. Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow
The Museum of the Great Patriotic War (as Russians call World War Two) is located at Poklonnaya Gora (Victory Park) in west-central Moscow, and also makes up an important part of the memorial complex in the same area. It was inaugurated in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two.
Some of the museum’s most impressive features are its three large commemorative halls. The central one is dedicated to all who received the award of Hero of the Soviet Union, whilst the other two remember the 26 million dead on the Soviet side and the key commanders of the Red Army during the war. Alongside the museum’s extensive exhibits are several huge, realistic paintings that depict some of the war’s key battles.
The Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London was founded on 5 March 1917 with the purpose of being a national museum to record events that were still unfolding during World War One. Today, it is known as one of the finest war museums in the world.
The exhibitions in the Museum cover, amongst other things, different aspects of World Wars One and Two, including military history, the Holocaust, women’s roles in the conflicts, wartime artwork and the political issues of the time.
The IWM’s collections are vast and rich, and in addition to its role as a museum, it is also a major national art gallery, a national archive of written and audiovisual resources and a centre for research. Although the museum’s focus is on military action involving British or Commonwealth troops predominantly during the 20th century, it also examines war in the wider sense.
3. Museum of Military History, Vienna
The Museum of Military History in Vienna is the leading museum of the Austrian Armed Forces. Its existence dates back to imperial times, when it was founded in the mid-19th century on the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph. It remains in the same building today.
The original purpose of the museum was to highlight Austria’s role as a military superpower. However, the collections have been updated to also cover both World Wars, the inter-war period and the Cold War. One of the most popular attractions in the museum is the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering the start of World War One.
4. The National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City
The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, is home to the most comprehensive collection of World War One items in the world. It was opened in 1926 as the Liberty Memorial, and in 2004 was designated the United States’ official war memorial and museum dedicated to World War One.
The museum focuses specifically on global events from the causes of the First World War before 1914 through the 1918 armistice and 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
The museum has its roots in a memorial built by popular subscription right after the war’s end, which makes it not only the second oldest museum about World War One anywhere in the world, but one that was also completely crowdfunded. Visitors enter the exhibit space within the 32,000 square foot facility across a glass bridge above a field of 9,000 red poppies which each represent 1,000 combatant deaths.
Les Invalides was a project ordered by King Louis XIV in 1670 as a hospital and home for aged and injured soldiers. It was completed in 1676. Napoleon was entombed under the great dome in 1840, and in 1894, the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and his subsequent rehabilitation (1906) took place in front of the main building.
From 1905, the building predominantly became home to the Musée de l’Armée. Take a stroll through the formal lawns and gardens before exploring the collection of 50,000 objects housed by the Musee de l’Armée. The permanent collection includes military artefacts from the 13th to the 17th century.
Visitors can walk through time viewing items from Antiquity to the Renaissance, stopping to learn about the Napoleonic Empires and both World Wars. Visiting the museum, touring the grand tomb of Napoleon, and watching the presentation on Charles de Gaulle, will give you a thorough appreciation of how France has been shaped by war.
The National WWII Museum, formerly known as The National D-Day Museum, is a military history museum located in the Central Business District of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Opened in 2000 on the 56th anniversary of D-Day, it was later designated by the United States Congress as America’s official World War Two Museum in 2003.
The museum features a number of galleries which relate to D-Day, as well as an extensive and impressive collection of aircraft. The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion is also home to rotating temporary exhibits, as well as the immersive and interactive train car which opened in 2013. It has won awards which recognise it as one of the best World War Two museums in the world.
7. Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, Brussels
Though small, Belgium’s location turned it into a battlefield during both World War One and Two. As a result, the country is home to a number of impressive commemorative sites, amongst them the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, which is now part of the War Heritage Institute.
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History is home to a large weaponry and armour collection from across the world which dates as far back as the Middle Ages, as well as army vehicles and a rotating display of exhibitions. Most impressive of all is the aircraft collection, both military and civilian, with some dating back to the early 20th century.
8. Dutch Resistance Museum, Amsterdam
The Dutch Resistance Museum, next to the historic city centre of Amsterdam, covers a generally under-reported aspect of World War Two: life and death behind enemy lines. Though its primary focus is on the Dutch experience during the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany during the war, it also covers other aspects of the conflict and is highly relatable for other countries who experienced similar adversity.
The museum is immersive and features many real objects displayed in their proper context and personal stories of those who lived during the period. Unusually, there is also a Resistance Museum Junior which approaches the museum from a child’s perspective.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth is one of many museums under a British umbrella organisation which details the history of the Royal Navy. It brings history to life, showcasing stories and artefacts from the last 350 years and examining the common threads which link sailors from Britain’s nautical past with sailors from today.
Outside the museum is the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where visitors will find the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s favourite ship, which sank in battle in 1545 and was raised from the waters just outside the museum in 1982. The site is also home to Nelson’s legendary warship HMS Victory, as well as HMS Alliance.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is located on the National Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Its mission is to collect, restore, study and interpret objects that reflect the experience of the American people. Its collections range from public lives to major national events and cultural elements such as the history of advertising and cinema.
With over 3 million artefacts, the National Museum of American History covers everything from popular culture and entertainment to technology, military history and politics. Some of the highlights of its exhibits include the original Star-Spangled Banner, President Lincoln’s iconic top hat and, depending on your area of interest, the original Kermit the Frog Puppet. For military history enthusiasts, it’s a must.