Photo story

IWM's Early Years In 16 Images

The early years of IWM brought a name change, moves between museum buildings and locations and a rapidly growing collection. As IWM marks its centenary year, these images reveal some significant moments in its development.

  • 1. IWM is Born

    The Chairman and Committee of the Imperial War Museum seated around a table. Left to right: Ian Malcolm (Art), Martin Conway (Director General), Alfred Mond (Chairman), Colonel J.R. Stansfield (Munitions), Captain C.C. Walcott (Admiralty), B.B. Cubitt (War Office), C.W.C. Oman (Library) and Lieutenant Charles ffoulkes (Secretary).
    The Chairman and Committee of the Imperial War Museum seated around a table. Left to right: Ian Malcolm (Art), Martin Conway (Director General), Alfred Mond (Chairman), Colonel J.R. Stansfield (Munitions), Captain C.C. Walcott (Admiralty), B.B. Cubitt (War Office), C.W.C. Oman (Library) and Lieutenant Charles ffoulkes (Secretary).
    Q 30157

    On 5 March 1917 the War Cabinet approves Sir Alfred Mond’s proposal that a collection should be formed of war trophies, books, maps, posters, pictures and other material connected with the war. A National War Museum Committee was established to oversee the fledgling institution, which included Sir Martin Conway (IWM Director); Sir Alfred Mond MP (Chair);  and Lt (later Major) Charles ffoulkes (Curator).

  • 2. Collecting Materiel from the Front

    Various items of war materiel, collected and stored at the National War Museum Store at Hesdin, September 1917.
    Various items of war materiel, collected and stored at the National War Museum Store at Hesdin, September 1917.
    Q 2943

    Once IWM was established, work to gather material began almost immediately, with committees established to oversee all types of collections, from Art, the Services and the Library to women, animals, children folklore and religion. Circulars were sent out to Army and Navy units and a collecting team was set up in GHQ in France.  This image shows the Imperial War Museum store at Hesdin in September 1917. The autumn of 1917 also saw the National War Museum become the Imperial War Museum, to better reflect the contribution made to the war effort by people across the then Empire.

  • 3. The Women's Gallery at IWM

    Women's War Work Exhibition, Whitechapel: Hospital Section Exhibits.
    Women's War Work Exhibition, Whitechapel: Hospital Section Exhibits.
    Q 31112

    The Women’s Work Collection recorded the experiences of women during the First World War and beyond. It was accrued largely between 1917 and 1920 by the Women’s War Work Committee led by Lady Priscilla Norman, who went on to be one of IWM’s longest serving founding Trustees. For the first three years of its life, IWM was scattered in offices and stores across London, relying on temporary exhibition venues, such as the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Royal Academy to display its collections.

  • 4. Naval Guns Arrive at the Crystal Palace

    The image shows the arrival of a replica 18 inch naval gun at Crystal Palace with the cast-iron and glass building visible in the background.
    The image shows the arrival of a replica 18 inch naval gun at Crystal Palace with the cast-iron and glass building visible in the background.
    Q 20528

    In 1920, the Ministry of Works signed a four year lease of space in Crystal Palace for the Museum’s use, at a cost of £25,000. The advantage of Crystal Palace as a venue for the first display of IWM’s collection was that it was spacious enough to accommodate some of the very early large exhibits. The main drawback, however, was that the structure was much too cold in the winter and far too hot in the summer – far from ideal conditions for the objects.

  • 5. Help from the Army

    Men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps moving trophies into the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace.
    Men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps moving trophies into the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace.
    Q 31387

    IWM had few staff in its early days and relied on external assistance to move many of its objects. Between April and June 1920 more than 500 tons of exhibits were installed in Crystal Palace in the space of just six weeks.

  • 6. A French Visitor to IWM

    Moving a French tank into the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace.
    Moving a French tank into the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace.
    Q 17196

    A French tank is moved into position. IWM collected material relating to all countries who were involved in the conflict on both sides. Often this involved writing direct to embassies or other representatives to request material, or in in the case of enemy combatants, requesting captured material from the War Office or direct from the services.

  • 7. Opening of IWM

    HM King George V performing the opening ceremony of the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace, 9 June 1920.
    HM King George V performing the opening ceremony of the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace, 9 June 1920.
    Q 44819

    HM King George V opens the Imperial War Museum at the Crystal Palace to the public for the first time as crowds wait to enter the museum. Replying to the King’s speech at the opening ceremony, the Museum’s Chairman Sir Alfred Mond declared that: ‘The museum was not conceived as a monument of military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice... of the immeasurable sacrifices and supreme national effort which... as we all hope, laid firm and deep the foundations of a new and better world.’

  • 8. A Model Museum

    Visitors to the Imperial War Museum examine a model at Crystal Palace in 1920.
    Visitors to the Imperial War Museum examine a model at Crystal Palace in 1920.
    Q 31412

    IWM was not designed to be solely a military museum. Chairman Sir Alfred Mond had said that: 'It is hoped to make [the museum] so complete that every individual, man or woman, sailor, soldier, airman or civilian who contributed, however obscurely, to the final result, may be able to find in these galleries an example or illustration of the sacrifice he made or the work he did, and in the archives some record of it.'

  • 9. On Parade

    View of the army section display, Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace, 1920.
    View of the army section display, Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace, 1920.
    Q 31438

    This view of the army section display in Crystal Palace gives some idea of the scale of the early collection. The galleries were spacious enough to accommodate not only tanks and large artillery pieces, but also suspended aircraft, flags, maps and art works.

  • 10. Remembering the Fallen

    The Curator of the Imperial War Museum, Major Charles ffoulkes, and the Museum's Superintendent of Stores, Captain W Mallandaine MC, place wreaths on L Battery's Vickers QF 13pdr Mk 1 field gun, September 1923
    The Curator of the Imperial War Museum, Major Charles ffoulkes, and the Museum's Superintendent of Stores, Captain W Mallandaine MC, place wreaths on L Battery's Vickers QF 13pdr Mk 1 field gun, September 1923
    Q 31567

    Major Charles ffoulkes and Captain W Mallandaine MC, the Museum's Curator and Superintendent of Stores respectively, place wreaths sent by the Royal Horse Artillery onto L Battery's Vickers QF 13pdr Mk 1 field gun to mark the ninth anniversary of the action at Néry in which L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery won three Victoria Crosses. The Nery Battery gun can be seen today in the Atrium displays at IWM London.

  • 11. IWM Moves to South Kensington

    The Vickers QF 13pdr Horse Artillery Gun of E Battery, Royal Horse Artillery at the museum’s South Kensington location on 18 October 1925.
    The Vickers QF 13pdr Horse Artillery Gun of E Battery, Royal Horse Artillery at the museum’s South Kensington location on 18 October 1925.
    Q 42422

    IWM moved across London to its new home in South Kensington in 1924 where it occupied two small galleries adjacent to the Imperial Institute. The size of the display space available was significantly reduced and many objects went into store or had to be disposed of, while the museum's aircraft collection was loaned to the Science Museum.

  • 12. The Bethlem Royal Hospital

    A copy of a 19th century print showing the exterior of the Bethlem Royal Hospital at Lambeth Road, London.
    A copy of a 19th century print showing the exterior of the Bethlem Royal Hospital at Lambeth Road, London.
    Q 82924

    This 19th century print shows IWM’s current Lambeth Road building in its previous incarnation, as Bethlem Royal Hospital. The Hospital moved out to Beckenham, Kent, and the buildings were purchased by Lord Rothermere so they could be demolished and the land used for a public park in memory of his mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. Although the two large wings either side of the structure were demolished to make way for the park, IWM was allowed to use the central portion.

  • 13. IWM Arrives at Lambeth Road

    Exterior view of the Imperial War Museum in its new quarters at Lambeth Road, London, 1937.
    Exterior view of the Imperial War Museum in its new quarters at Lambeth Road, London, 1937.
    Q 61181

    IWM moved into its Lambeth Road building in 1936 and remains there to this day.  The galleries were opened  by the then Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) on 7 July 1936. The increase in space meant that the Library, previously based at Queen Anne’s Gate, the aircraft, on loan at the Science Museum, and the rest of the Museum at the Imperial Institute could be reunited in one place for the first time since 1924.

  • 14. Preparing for War

    Preparations for war: A barrage balloon is inflated in front of the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road, London.
    Preparations for war: A barrage balloon is inflated in front of the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road, London.
    Q 64060

    IWM had only been installed in its new home for four years when war broke out in September 1939. The museum was closed and plans were immediately made to evacuate all major exhibits, although it reopened for a short period in 1940. Increasing danger from air raids forced the museum to close again and it remained closed to the public until 1946. A skeleton staff were kept on and the site was used as a timber dump and a Royal Army Ordnance Corps billet during the Second World War.

  • 15. IWM under Attack

    Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London, 31 January 1941.
    Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London, 31 January 1941.
    MH 127

    On 31 January 1941 the IWM suffered a direct hit on the Naval Gallery, which caused severe damage to the Short Seaplane that had been flown at the Battle of Jutland. A gang of men working in the gallery had a narrow escape as they left for lunch shortly before the bomb landed. During the war there were 41 instances of bomb damage to the museum building, and these were not fully repaired until the 1950s.

  • 16. Naval Guns Unveiled

    The unveiling ceremony of the 15-inch guns from HMS RAMILLIES and HMS RESOLUTION outside the Imperial War Museum, 8 August 1968.
    The unveiling ceremony of the 15-inch guns from HMS RAMILLIES and HMS RESOLUTION outside the Imperial War Museum, 8 August 1968.
    MH 10164

    The now iconic 15 inch guns from HMS Ramillies and HMS Resolution outside IWM’s Lambeth Road building were installed and unveiled to the public in 1968. The removal was carried out by Robert Wynn and Sons at a cost of £2,575 for the move and £700-£800 for mounting the guns. To minimise disruption, the removal from storage at Shoeburyness to IWM was carried out at night.