The Lord Ashcroft Gallery, at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, is a free exhibition that houses the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), alongside a significant collection of George Crosses (GCs).

The gallery was paid for with a donation of more than £5 million from Lord Ashcroft and it was opened in November 2010 by HRH The Princess Royal.

The gallery houses the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition containing Lord Ashcroft’s collection of more than 200 VCs, along with his smaller collection of GCs. It is also home to VCs and GCs in the care of the IWM. The VC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s premier award for gallantry in the presence of the enemy, while the GC is Britain’s most prestigious civil decoration and is also awarded to military personnel for exceptional courage not in the face of the enemy.

Visitors to the gallery’s Extraordinary Heroes exhibition can discover the personal stories behind each medal in a state-of-the-art 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, 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 Leading Seaman 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 – in 1986 – was the decoration awarded to Magennis.

To mark the opening of the gallery, the IWM 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 details and motivation behind the bravery, 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.

IWM London, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ

1 Lambeth North Underground Station 2 Elephant & Castle Underground Station