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London War Rooms Add Churchill Museum

Sunday, February 6, 2005

London's new Churchill Museum will never see the light of day.

Sure, the exhibits are in place, the grand opening is on the queen's schedule, and the public has been invited to tour. But the Cabinet War Rooms, home to the Churchill Museum, have never seen daylight. The War Rooms were Winston Churchill's underground headquarters -- the place "from which I'll direct the war," Churchill decreed in 1940, " . . . until either the Germans are driven back, or they carry me out dead."

The subterranean Cabinet War Rooms are a prime visitor attraction, and the latest expansion of the site -- the Churchill Museum -- can only add to the draw. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Churchill's death, and the museum opens Friday. Many of the prime minister's finest hours were spent here, and it is the wartime persona -- the cigar-smoking, V for Victory-flashing, "Never, never, never, never give up" orator -- that many visiting Americans associate with him.

The Cabinet War Rooms are a remarkable underground warren of meeting rooms, claustrophobic sleeping quarters and bulky communications equipment buried beneath the Treasury building near No. 10 Downing St. and Parliament. Churchill and his cabinet ministers met here throughout much of World War II, sheltered from the German bombs and missiles that wracked the city above them. At war's end, the doors were locked and much of the complex became a 1945 time capsule.

The War Rooms have been open to the public since 1984; today more than 300,000 visitors per year tour the site. The Churchill Museum -- a project of the Imperial War Museum, which budgeted about $11.3 million for the initiative -- is an expansion into existing space that was part of the original complex.

The museum transports the visitor through Churchill's life, though it's not a strictly chronological review of that life. Instead, it presents five thematic chapters: Young Churchill, War Leader, Cold War Statesman, Maverick Politician and Wilderness Years.

There's more British historical detail here than the average American visitor may want to absorb. But the museum makes full use of computer and video technology to enliven that history for the casual visitor, while allowing buffs to delve deeper into the Churchill story. The spine of the museum is Lifeline, a 50-foot-long video table that presents an interactive timeline of Churchill's life. Visitors can explore more than 300 data points, encountering some programmed surprises that will delight, or at least startle, those gathered around the huge video screen.

The museum even captures (interactively) a few of Churchill's personality quirks. The man was fond of the carp stocked in the fish pond at his Chartwell family home. Churchill would dangle his hand on the water's surface and the fish would gently nibble his fingers. Sure enough, the museum has a tiny "pond" and electronic fish appear when a visitor touches the Plexiglas surface.

Churchill ranks as one of the most quotable speakers of the 20th century, and the museum resounds with recordings of his famous speeches. It also traces his life with more traditional exhibits, such as an Enigma machine that helped break German wartime communication codes, part of an effort he called "the geese that laid the golden eggs." Other artifacts include Churchill's siren suit, custom-made velvet engineer's coveralls that he preferred as casual wear (the suit looks ridiculous to the modern fashion eye). Uniforms, document reproductions and a model of Churchill's Chartwell home are also on display.

Near the end of the museum stands the famous front door to No. 10 Downing St., a poignant reminder of the man who twice served as prime minister.

-- David S. White

The Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are at Clive Steps, King Charles Street, near the intersection of Horse Guards Road and Great George Street. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission at 5 p.m.). Cost is about $19 for adults, about $15 for students and seniors. Children under 16 admitted free. Nearest tube stops: Westminster and St. James's Park. Info: 011-44-20-7930- 6961, www.iwm.org.uk (click on the Cabinet War Rooms section).

© 2005 The Washington Post Company