The Imperial War Museum’s Work to Safeguard Its Collections During the Second World War

By Philip W. Deans


Over September-November 2018 I undertook a placement at Imperial War Museums (IWM). This placement was generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership scheme, which has overseen my doctoral studentship. During the placement, I assisted curators to develop an exhibition entitled Art in Exile looking at the IWM during the Second World War: the protection of its collection from aerial attack. This links directly with my own doctoral research on the broader history of the IWM over that period (see Deans 2017) and work for the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield. It also paralleled scholarship presented at the Museums and Galleries History Group’s 2018 summer conference Museums, Collections and Conflict, 1500-2010

During this conference, various institutional experiences of war were discussed. These included museum evacuation procedures such as at the Bologna Museum and the Louvre. The evacuations were often effective, or at the very least comprehensive. Over the two days, I was struck by how different the IWM’s evacuation experience was from those presented at the conference. This has motivated me to write about the IWM’s evacuation processes and problems. Decisions made on the spot, plus a conservative mindset on cultural value, caused an ineffective evacuation which had ramifications for the collection.

The Imperial War Museum prepares for war, 1933-1939

As the Second World War loomed, the United Kingdom took extra measures to safeguard its most vulnerable cultural property. The first meeting on the issue took place during 1933, not long after Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and the Disarmament Conference. The IWM participated from the outset along with other national museums across London. The impetus was the advances in air war during and following the last war. For the first time, the United Kingdom had come under threat by potential enemies operating from mainland Europe. As these threats increased and became clearer with the Spanish Civil War, the dangers posed to the United Kingdom crystallised. There seemed a realistic prospect that the country would suddenly and decisively be knocked out of any conflict with Germany. This fear became reflected in the IWM’s interwar evacuation plans. For example, from 1934, any evacuation was eventually anticipated to be needed with little or no notice, at night, under fire. Consequently, a decision had been taken to arm the museum’s staff with old trench clubs so they could fend off mob attacks on the evacuation lorries. 

Plans for the initial evacuation were driven by practical and ideological considerations. The IWM’s collection included many big, bulky or heavy objects which could not easily be evacuated, e.g. vehicles, aircraft and guns. But it also included more manoeuvrable collections, ranging from smaller objects of materiel, art, photographs, manuscripts, maps and books. The London Fire Brigade reports on aerial bomb damage from the previous war, for example, were unique. Even so, during preparations, there developed a view at the institution that its collection possessed little inherent cultural value compared with those held in the other older national institutions. Alongside more understandable issues concerning size, therefore, this inferiority complex limited the evacuation. Initial removals were thus restricted to oil paintings, watercolours – its modern art at the time comprised the largest and most important in the country – and photographs.

This evaluation sits problematically with the IWM’s foundation and early years. On opening, the institution aimed to sanctify the war dead of the British Empire. Its exhibits were treated as ‘sacred relics’ – objects comprising tangible remains of or links with a saint. Accordingly, the collection was seen as forming tangible connections to the war dead. Yet just nineteen years later, the same collection had begun being treated more like junk. The apparent willingness to jeopardise its collection brings the institution’s commitment towards that message into question. The move also shows the persistence of conventional schemes of value whereby fine art outweighs ephemera and social history material.

The evacuation, August 1939

The initial evacuation of the IWM was far less eventful than had been anticipated. In a pre-emptive move, all the national institutions closed at the Home Secretary’s orders on 23 August 1939. Besides, the knockout blow that had been feared never materialised. When the United Kingdom declared war against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, no bombs fell immediately. The evacuation took place over 24-25 August 1939. Three lorries provided by the Office of Works were despatched: two on the first day, three on the second. The IWM’s staff sorted the material that had been designated for evacuation in order of priority by three exits. This was planned with meticulous detail, facilitating rapid evacuation while ensuring staff could track where everything went. The lorries they received, however, were far bigger than anticipated. This led to the plans eventually being ignored when it was realised the job could be done faster by just filling each lorry to capacity rather than as per the evacuation schedule.

With loading complete, the lorries proceeded to prearranged refuges. These were three country houses spread out across south east England. 

The refuges

The use of country houses became central to the IWM’s safeguarding plans from 1934. Over the years, various properties were identified. During 1939 these had been confirmed as Colworth House near Sharnbrook in Bedfordshire, owned by Henry Ludwig Mond, 2nd Barron Melchett; Penn House near Amersham in Buckinghamshire, owned by Francis Curzon, 5th Earl Howe; and Ramster Hall near Chiddingfold in Surrey, owned by Florence Priscilla Norman, Lady Norman. Country houses comprised the main refuge for the United Kingdom’s national collections, but were problematic. Although located away from strategic infrastructure, they nevertheless comprised unsafe places to store museum collections. Firstly, they were old. This meant it was difficult to maintain good environmental conditions in them. Their combination of design and materials caused fluctuating relative humidity and temperature, which can be detrimental for museum collections. Secondly, they were often still inhabited or kept in regular use, rendering them a fire risk. That many had been made of flammable material such as wood did not help in this regard. Thirdly, they were often difficult to reach and monitor, being far away from the museums which used them. And fourthly, while landlords willingly looked after so called ‘valuable’ material, the same could not be said for large or less aesthetic material.

The IWM experienced challenges at its refuges. Reflecting on their use after the conflict, the institution’s Director-General, Leslie Ripley Bradley, commented that they had been far from ideal situations. This is most clearly seen with the IWM’s experience at Penn House, near Sharnbrook in Bedfordshire. Penn House was originally owned by the 5th Earl Howe, a Trustee of the IWM since the 1920s. During 1934, the 5th Earl Howe promised Penn House to the museum in an emergency. But circumstances eventually problematised this arrangement. By 1939, responsibility for Penn House transferred over to his son, Edward Curzon, 6th Earl Howe, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, thus frequently leaving the property unoccupied. Although the 6th Earl Howe honoured his father’s pledge, the environmental conditions at Penn House became unsuitable for the watercolours and drawings that had been deposited there. As a result, these were mostly reclaimed by mid-1940. Yet some fifty oil paintings remained in a separate garage on the estate. These included works by well-known artists, including John Singer Sargent and William Orpen. About ten were described as ‘large’ works, suggesting that Sargent’s famous oil painting, Gassed – ‘the jewel in the IWM’s crown’, one curator told me – may have been among them. But eventually even these needed removing after the 6th Earl Howe decided to lease out the property. The new tenant was a boys’ prep school, which used the garage for vehicles. Over several months, therefore, the oil paintings shared their refuge with working motorcars. The unacceptability of this was quickly realised by staff at the IWM, who arranged for their transferal to Ramster Hall during November 1940.

Implications and further evacuations

Such was the unexpected size of the lorries sent by the Office of Works during the initial evacuation that the IWM’s staff considered extending the evacuation schedule, but decided against it. This would be a decision they may have come to regret. When the Blitz started on 7 September 1940, the IWM found itself at continuous risk. Located in central London near overt targets, the institution was far more vulnerable to air raids than other museums located around the more peaceful South Kensington area. Further evacuations thus became necessary. 

Although fortunately nobody was ever killed at the IWM during the Second World War, some material fell victim to bombing. On 31 January 1941, for example, the IWM’s Naval Gallery received a direct hit. Alongside the destruction of many expensive ship models and other material that had remained there, the museum lost the world’s last Short Seaplane – damaged beyond repair. Flown at the Battle of Jutland during the First World War, this specimen was the first aeroplane ever to participate in a Naval engagement.

With the Blitz underway and its building suffering damage, the IWM’s evacuation policy shifted to a reactive as-and-when-necessary approach. Some items were temporally accepted by other, more safely located institutions into their temporary care. Some were sent on tours around the country. And some were granted refuge in further country houses – this latter method being arranged commercially via the Office of Works. One of the last areas to be evacuated was the IWM’s library. It had long been intended that library material would remain for as long as possible at the institution. This is because the library was thought to be required for consultation by the general public and the state, which indeed became the case. Eventually, however, even this policy became unsustainable. Consequently, during June 1941, the library was evacuated to Barnstaple. With that, virtually everything which could be removed from the IWM’s building, had been removed.

Concluding reflections

The IWM’s struggle with the principles and practices of evacuation during the Second World War sheds light on wider issues around cultural property protection. Its experience was far from universal. A combination of circumstances and conceptions produced an evacuation strategy that became highly conservative and not fit for purpose. In sum, the first problem was that not enough material had been removed from the IWM in the initial evacuation. This came at a cost in air raid damage, and meant the museum eventually necessitated further, more difficult and expensive evacuations once the war started biting. The second problem was the inadequacy of storage locations such as Penn House. Intolerable environmental conditions, brought about by the landlord’s absence, resulted in the refuge being abandoned after just one year. And the third problem was the institution’s hitherto inexplicable inferiority complex, which produced an initial evacuation schedule that conveyed a very specific schema of value. This goes against core museum philosophy today, and the decision making around it would prove costly both in the short and long term. Unfortunately, such schemas of value can still pervade the heritage sector today. This account shows the ramifications conceptions like these potentiate where they are tolerated.

Philip W. Deans is a stage four doctoral research student at Newcastle University. He is Postgraduate Officer for the Museums and Galleries History Group, and Secretariat of the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield.

Note on primary sources

The majority of this blog post has been drawn from archival material in IWM’s own institutional archive and The National Archives. By far the most comprehensive source is the two-part unpublished War History of the Imperial War Museum, 1933-1946 manuscript. This comprises an unpublished account, produced by the Director-General for a proposed volume of the official History of the Second World War civil series about the national museum and galleries, which never came to fruition. This is currently viewable at IWM’s reading room.

Further reading

Deans, Philip W., ‘The Imperial War Museum Originally Opened As a Museum to End All Wars – That Didn’t Last Long’, The Conversation, 7 March 2017 <> [2 January 2019].

Gardiner, Juliet, Wartime: Britain, 1939-1945 (London: Headline Publishing, 2004).

McCamley, N. J., Saving Britain's Art Treasures (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2003).

Pearson, Catherine, Museums in the Second World War: Curators, Culture and Change, ed by Suzanne Keene (Abingdon: Routledge 2017).