IWM was founded on 5 March 1917 when the War Cabinet approved a proposal by Sir Alfred Mond MP for the creation of a national war museum to record the events still taking place during the Great War. The intention was to collect and display material as a record of everyone’s experiences during that war - civilian and military - and to commemorate the sacrifices of all sections of society.

IWM History

Who set up the Imperial War Museums?

The staff of the Imperial War Museum taken shortly after the Museum first opened to the public at Crystal Palace, London.
© IWM (Q 55176)

IWM was founded on 5 March 1917,  while the First World War was still being fought. The museum was not formed as a monument to military glory, but as a record of the toil and sacrifice of those who had served in uniform or worked on the home front. Find out more about some of the men and women who helped shape the early years of IWM.

The interest taken by the Dominion governments led to the renaming of the National War Museum to Imperial War Museum later in 1917. It was formally established by Act of Parliament in 1920 and a governing Board of Trustees appointed.

IWM History

How IWM Got Its Start In The Middle Of A War

A view of items being stored at the National War Museum Store at Hesdin, September 1917. The National War Museum was later renamed the Imperial War Museum.
© IWM (Q 2943)

On 5 March 1917, the War Cabinet approved a proposal by Sir Alfred Mond, the Commissioner of Works, that a museum be founded to record the events of the First World War. For the first time in Britain, a national museum would be dedicated to a specific conflict and would set out to record the contribution made by all sections of society.

The museum was opened in the Crystal Palace by King George V on 9 June 1920. From 1924 to 1935 it was housed in two galleries adjoining the former Imperial Institute, South Kensington. On 7 July 1936, the Duke of York, shortly to become King George VI, reopened the museum in its present home on Lambeth Road, South London, formerly the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’.

IWM History

How IWM London Found A Home

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

The Imperial War Museum opened its first 'permanent' exhibition at Crystal Palace on 9 June 1920, after three years of temporary exhibitions and scattered storage.

Find out how IWM London found its permanent home and discover its fascinating history. 

With the onset of war in 1939 IWM’s remit was extended to include the Second World War. While a programme of collecting got underway, vulnerable collections were evacuated to stores outside London, and the museum was closed to the public from September 1940 to November 1946. Most of the exhibits survived the war, but a Short Seaplane which had flown at the Battle of Jutland was shattered when a German bomb fell on the Naval Gallery on 31 January 1941. This was just one of more than 40 incendiary hits on the building throughout the war.

IWM History

IWM's Early Years in 16 Pictures

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

IWM was founded on 5 March 1917 when the War Cabinet approved a proposal by Sir Alfred Mond MP for the creation of a national war museum to record the events still taking place during the Great War.

Discover IWM's early years in 16 compelling collections images. 

The Korean War led to a further redefinition of the IWM’s terms of reference to include all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces had been involved since 1914. IWM has therefore continued to collect every type of evidence documenting its very broad remit. Its collections are vast and rich, and in addition to its role as a museum, IWM is also a major national art gallery, a national archive of written and audio visual recourse, and a centre for research.

During the 1970s and 1980s IWM underwent a period of unprecedented expansion, with the establishment of three new branches – IWM Duxford in 1976, HMS Belfast in 1978 and Churchill War Rooms in 1984. The fifth member of the IWM family, IWM North, opened in Trafford, Greater Manchester, on 5 July 2002.

Further information on the history of the organisation can be found on the Museum Archive pages.

Learn more about our five branches

Front shot of IWM London at night

About IWM London

Discover more about the history of IWM London, which stretches back over 100 years. 

Exterior of Churchill War Rooms, Imperial War Museums

About Churchill War Rooms

Discover more about the history of Churchill War Rooms, a subterranean wartime nerve centre. 

HMS Belfast at Night

About HMS Belfast

Learn more about the history of HMS Belfast, veteran of the Second World War and Korea. 

IWM North

About IWM North

Discover more about IWM North, purpose-built to tell the stories of war. 

Duxford Airfield

About IWM Duxford

Discover more about the history of IWM Duxford, a Battle of Britain airfield.