Art in Exile
Planning for the protection of museum collections in the event of war had begun years before the start of the Second World War. IWM had prepared a priority list of objects that would be removed from London and stored safely in the countryside.
When a government official called the museum late one evening and told staff to begin the evacuation of IWM’s most treasured objects, the museum was ready.
Explore our online Google Arts & Culture exhibit to get up close to some of the artworks that were on the priority list – and find out about some of those that were not.
IWM at war
IWM was founded during the First World War to tell the stories of those whose lives had been touched by the conflict – objects were being collected for the new museum while the war went on.
In October 1939, the decision was made to expand the remit of the museum – it would now also cover the events of this new war, even though the outcome of it was still far from certain.
A skeleton staff were kept on and the site was used as a timber dump and a Royal Army Ordnance Corps billet.
But the collection would also prove useful – the museum kept its library going and the maps collection was being constantly reviewed. Photographs from the First World War were used for training and propaganda purposes.
Ernest Blaikley, IWM’s first keeper of art, oversaw the evacuation of key works of art from the Imperial War Museum. His office on the first floor of the building overlooked Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park and he took an opportunity to draw the view looking east towards Charlotte Sharman primary school.
The gun manned by Jack Cornwell at the Battle of Jutland has been on display at IWM London for most of its history – you can see it today in the First World War Galleries.
However, in 1940, the museum was asked to help the military by handing over items from its collection – after the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk, there was an acute shortage of equipment and weaponry.
Jack Cornwell’s gun was one of the items that the museum was asked to give up
The trustees of the museum agreed to hand over some exhibits – but refused to give up the Cornwell gun, recognising how significant it was to the museum.
In 1940, the Ministry of Works questioned the museum about why it had not evacuated more of its collection. Some additional items were removed to the countryside – but the majority of the collection remained at the museum to face the risk of German bombs.
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. The group of men who had been working in the gallery repairing earlier damage had a narrow escape as they had left for lunch shortly before the bomb landed.
This was just one of more than 40 incendiary hits on the building throughout the war.
IWM after the war
Although the museum was opened again briefly in 1940 and held two small exhibitions in 1944 and 1945, it did not officially reopen until 26 November 1946.
With the Second World War over, the museum would go on to tell the story of this and later conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth. Today, IWM is a family of five museums including the historic sites of Churchill War Rooms and IWM Duxford, which both played key roles in the Second World War. The museum also cares for HMS Belfast, a naval cruiser that was present at D-Day.
IWM moved into its Lambeth Road building in 1936. A little over three years later, the museum would be forced to close as the nation went to war.