History of IWM London

Pupils visit IWM London galleries

In 1917 the Cabinet decided that a National War Museum should be set up to collect and display material relating to the Great War, which was still being fought. The interest taken by the Dominion governments led to the museum being given the title of Imperial War Museum. It was formally established by Act of Parliament in 1920 and a governing Board of Trustees appointed.

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, formerly the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’, thanks to the generosity of Lord Rothermere.

Second World War, IWM History, Behind the scenes

IWM during the Second World War

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

The museum was closed to the public from September 1940 to November 1946 and vulnerable collections were evacuated to stores outside London. 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 and some of the naval models were damaged by the blast.

At the outset of the Second World War the Imperial War Museum's terms of reference were enlarged to cover both world wars and they were again extended in 1953 to include all military operations in which Britain or the Commonwealth have been involved since August 1914.

Peace and protest

People Power: Protest at IWM London

Protesters hold hands in front of IWM London, May 1983.

In April 2012 IWM announced plans to transform IWM London and create a long-lasting legacy for the First World War, in time for the centenary of 2014 – 2018. The museum re-opened in July 2014 revealing a transformed atrium and new displays. 

The museum's transformation continues with the redevelopment of the Second World War galleries. 

Find out more and visit

Front shot of IWM London at night

Venue Hire IWM London

IWM London is a Grade-II listed building with a number of stunning event spaces suitable for a variety of daytime events.

IWM London

IWM London Tours

Explore IWM London’s galleries with one of our IWM Expert Guides.

IWM London Exterior shot

IWM London

Our London museum tells the stories of people’s experiences of modern war from WW1 to conflicts today