The history of warfare is intertwined with that of mankind. And while, unfortunately, war is not a rare occurrence in history, it remains one of the most traumatic experiences that a nation and its inhabitants can endure.
No wonder then that museums have been set up around the world to preserve the memory of armed conflicts and the people who fought in them. Here is a list of some of the most remarkable ones.
Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list. We had to leave many great museums out to not end up with an impossibly long list. Also not included, despite their undeniable historical interest, are interpretation centers found at battle sites, memorials and other places of remembrance. That is, perhaps, a story for another day.
1. Imperial War Museum, London
Established in 1917, while World War I was still being fought, the Imperial War Museum, known as IWM, marked its centenary in 2017 as one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the world.
Although obviously focused on the topic of war, the staff members do not describe it as a military museum, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.
“IWM London is a social history museum that explores how modern conflict has affected entire societies, from the front lines to the home fronts, using its rich collection – objects, artworks, interviews with survivors, letters, diaries and much more – to tell compelling personal stories,” explains Laura Clouting, senior curator.
From the huge naval guns that welcome its visitors – relics from battleship HMS Ramillies – to immersive recreations of WWI and WWII scenes – the museum is capable of captivating visitors far beyond the military enthusiast.
Other IWM sites in London include the Churchill War Rooms, the underground command center from which the war effort was directed, as well as HMS Belfast, a WWII-era cruiser permanently anchored next to Tower Bridge.
Also part of the network, IWM Duxford, near Cambridge, covers all aspects of the air war, while IWM North, in Manchester, explores the impact of war on people and society.
Not under the Imperial War Museum umbrella, but also in London and well worth a visit, are the Royal Air Force Museum London, and the National Army Museum, adjacent to the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Rd, London SE1 6HZ, England; +44 20 7416 5000
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2. National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri
Firing on the First World War’s Western Front ended on November 11, 1918. With the date’s 100th anniversary, the National WWI Museum and Memorial, designated by Congress in 2014 as the Nation’s WWI museum, acquires a special relevance.
The facility will host special Armistice Day activities from November 2‑11, 2018.
The National WWI Museum and Memorial 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 WWI anywhere in the world, but also one that was totally crowdfunded.
“We are quite unique among WWI museums in the diversity of our collection. Our encyclopaedic approach means that we are collecting items, over 75,000 of them, from all belligerents. We are not focusing exclusively on the American experience,” says Dr. Matthew Naylor, the museum’s president.
After undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion about a decade ago, the museum has seen visitor numbers surge and has become the top tourist attraction in Kansas City.
The centrally located, 47-acre museum grounds are also a venue for civic activities and events throughout the year. Visitors can also enjoy some of the best views of Kansas City from the top of the 217-foot Liberty Memorial Tower.
National WWI Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Dr, Kansas City, Missouri; +1 816-888-8100
3. National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, England
In keeping with its centuries-old reputation for excellence, the Royal Navy museum is sure to delight anyone with an interest in naval or military matters.
The museum is spread across several locations.
In addition to the museum proper, Portsmouth is home to three interesting historical vessels: HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar and the oldest naval vessel still in commission, HMS Warrior, a rare example of mid-19th century hybrid sail-and-steam naval technology and HMS M.33, a survivor of the Gallipoli Campaign in WWI.
Royal Marines Museum is part of NMRN but public galleries are currently closed to visitors and a new museum will open in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in spring 2020.
Other branches include the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in nearby Gosport, the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset and HMS Caroline in Belfast.
National Museum of the Royal Navy, HM Naval Base (PP66), Portsmouth PO1 3NH, England; +44 23 9289 1370
4. Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow
The solemn, monumental architecture of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is called in Russia) is a stark reminder of the huge human and material cost that the war inflicted upon the peoples of the former Soviet Union.
The complex, set in the midst of Park Pobedy (Victory Park), in west-central Moscow, was inaugurated in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.
Among the most impressive features of this museum are the three large commemorative halls. The central one is dedicated to all those who received the award of Hero of the Soviet Union. The other two remember the more than 26 million dead on the Soviet side and the key commanders of the Red Army during the war.
Also remarkable, and complementing the museum’s exhibits, are several huge, realistic paintings that depict, on an epic scale, some of the key battles of the war.
A visit to Park Pobedy (Парк Победы) can be easily combined with that of the nearby Museum-Panorama Borodino, a time jump to another defining moment of Russian military history. Here you will find a stunning 360-degree depiction of the major battle that Russian and Napoleonic armies fought near Moscow in 1812.
Museum of the Great Patriotic War, ul Bratiev Fonchenko 10, Moscow, Russia; +7 499 449-81-07
5. Les Invalides, Paris
French military grandeur has its home in the Hôtel des Invalides, near the banks of the Seine in the heart of Paris. This impressive complex, whose main building is topped by a golden dome, was built in the 17th century on the orders of King Louis XIV.
It was originally a retirement home for army veterans, but it now contains the Musée de l’Armée (the French Army Museum) as well as the Musée des Plans-reliefs that contains scale models of the main fortified cities of France and the crypt where the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte were laid to rest, after being repatriated from the island of St. Helena in 1840.
Les Invalides, Place des Invalides, 75007 Paris, France
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6. Museum of Military History, Vienna, Austria
Few countries rival Austria when it comes to a pivotal role in European history.
In fact, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Museum of Military History) traces its roots all the way back to imperial times, when Vienna was at the helm of a large multinational empire. The museum was founded in the mid-19th century on the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph and has always been hosted in the same purpose-built building.
The museum’s original aim was to highlight Austria’s role as a military superpower, but collections have been periodically updated to also cover the two World Wars, the inter-war period and the Cold War. Perhaps one of the most remarkable items on display is the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering the start of WWI.
Museum of Military History, Arsenal Objekt 1, 1030 Vienna, Austria; +43 1 795610
7. National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida
It is hard to overstate the role naval aviation has played in providing the United States with the capability to project power around the world.
But it’s not essential to enlist in the Navy to experience the might of naval airpower.
Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum showcases a superb collection of over 150 aircraft, a flight simulator and the immersive “Blue Angels 4D experience.”
National Naval Aviation Museum, 1750 Radford Blvd, Pensacola, Florida 3250; 1 850-452-3604
8. Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, Brussels, Belgium
The hazards of geography turned tiny Belgium into a battlefield during the two World Wars. As a result, Belgium is now endowed with a dense concentration of war sites as well as a first-rate military museum.
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, located at the Parc du Cinquantenaire in central Brussels, is now part of the War Heritage Institute, an institution that looks after other military history sites in Belgium.
The museum hosts a large collection of weapons and armor that spans from the Middle Ages to the present. A recent addition to the collection: an F-16 fighter jet.
Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, 1000 Brussels, Belgium; +32 2 737 78 11
9. Dutch Resistance Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
This rather small, but very interesting museum next to Amsterdam’s historical center is the odd one on the list, as it deals with a usually unreported aspect of war: life and death behind enemy lines.
Although focused on the Dutch experience during the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany in WWII, the resistance and occupation theme is something many nations across Europe can relate to.
The museum is designed to be a highly immersive experience, with plenty of real objects displayed in their proper context and personal stories of those who lived through this period. There is also a Resistance Museum Junior that approaches the topic from a children’s perspective.
Dutch Resistance Museum, Plantage Kerklaan 61A, 1018 CX, Amsterdam, Netherlands; +31 20 620 2535
10. National Infantry Museum, Fort Benning, Georgia
If boots on the ground win wars, Fort Benning has a lot to do with it. This military facility in Georgia is not only home to the US Army induction and training center for new recruits, but also to the National Infantry Museum. This is a proper journey through American history, from the War of Independence to the present.
A memorial to the global war on terrorism – featuring a steel beam pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center as well as the names of all service members killed in service since 9/11 – is among its newer displays.
National Infantry Museum, 1775 Legacy Way, Columbus, Georgia; +1 706-685-5800
11. National Museum of the US Air Force, Dayton, Ohio
The National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, hosts one of the most complete aircraft collections anywhere in the world.
Hundreds of aircraft are displayed at the museum, including not only some of the most iconic combat aircraft of all time, but also a few rare prototypes, such as the impressive-looking XB-70 Valkyrie, as well as several presidential aircraft.
B-17 Memphis Belle, of eponymous movie fame, is also part of the collection. After undergoing restoration, it went back on display on May 17, 2018, 75 years to the date after the crew completed its last mission of World War II.
National Museum of the US Air Force, 1100 Spaatz St, Dayton, Ohio 45431; +1 937-255-3286
12. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia
The US Marine Corps has been the spearhead of America’s power since the very early days of the nation’s existence.
Over 200 years of accomplishments of the US Marine Corps are thoroughly documented and explained in this museum through a series of immersive exhibits covering the major historical conflicts in which Marines have seen action. Visitors can also get a glimpse of the distinctive and intense training that it takes to “make a Marine.”
The National Museum of the Marine Corps has been through a period of transformation that has seen it move to a new contemporary building, whose design evokes the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising scene.
National Museum of the Marine Corps, 18900 Jefferson Davis Hwy, Triangle, Virginia 22172; +1 703-432-1775
Miquel Ros is an aviation blogger and consultant. An economist by background, he’s worked for Flightglobal and Bloomberg. He currently covers the airline industry through Allplane.tv.