essay - Imperial War Museum

essay - Imperial War Museum



It is often a matter of surprise to people to discover that the

Imperial War Museum was founded while the First World War

was still in progress. Indeed, when the first steps were being

taken towards the museum’s creation, an eventual allied victory

looked far from assured. Paradoxically however, the

gravity of the situation probably strengthened the hand of

those who wished to create a war museum.

During the first months of 1917 a number of individuals, notably

Charles ffoulkes, Curator of the Tower Armouries, and Sir Alfred

Mond, First Commissioner of Works, had begun to press for the establishment

of a ‘National War Museum’. Mond addressed a memorandum

on the subject to the recently installed Prime Minister,

David Lloyd-George. It seems likely that Mond’s idea struck a

chord with Lloyd-George, whose energetic approach to prosecuting

the war involved uniting the whole of the country behind the

war effort. In the wake of the heavy losses sustained during the

Battle of the Somme in 1916, it was seen as essential that the

public were left in no doubt as to why the war was being fought.

To this end a new Department of Information and a National War

Aims Committee had already been established. The approval given

by the cabinet, on 5 March 1917, to Mond’s idea of forming a

committee to oversee the creation of a National War Museum, has

been seen as part of the same process.

So, with a very modest Treasury grant of £3,000, the National

War Museum Committee was constituted in March 1917 (the

name ‘Imperial War Museum’ was not adopted until the end of

that year). With no chance of actually building a museum while

the war continued, the main priority of the committee was the

The Army

Gallery at

the Crystal


In the first of a series of essays in Despatches by curators, historians

and writers, Paul Cornish, of Imperial War Museum London, reflects

on the history of the Museum’s pioneering collections policy

22 ■ Despatches Winter 2008



Objects in the Imperial War Museum


acquisition of suitable exhibits. Several sub-committees were

created which covered the following areas: Admiralty, War

Office, Air Services, Munitions, Dominions, Library, and

Women’s Work. In addition, a Canadian officer, Major Henry

Beckles Willson, was given the task of collecting suitable exhibits

in France and Belgium.

Although the museum’s collecting policy embraced a variety of

media, including books, documents, posters, notices, photographs

and works of art, it is evident that three-dimensional exhibits were

chiefly what exercised the minds of the War Museum’s founders.

Sir Martin Conway, the Director General designate, made the following

statement of intent in a circular to the armed forces:

‘It is the purpose of the Museum to be a place which they [war

veterans] can visit with their comrades, their friends, or their children,

and there revive the past and behold again the great guns and

other weapons with which they fought, the uniforms they wore,

pictures and models of the ships and trenches and dug-outs in

which weary hours were spent, or of positions which they carried

and ground every yard of it memorable to them. They will be glad

to recall also the occupations of their hours of leisure.’

With the promise of equipment from official sources, plans of a

most ambitious nature were conceived. In attempting to create a

museum dealing with contemporary events, these men were undertaking

something without precedent. As one former Museum

historian, Gaynor Kavanagh, noted: ‘Its achievements in terms of

contemporary collecting and its pioneering work in this respect

has never been fully acknowledged by British museum curators’.

From the outset it was established that a priority should be given

to the acquisition of items with an interesting provenance – a

policy which has survived in the museum to this day. With items

such as artillery pieces, the checking of provenance was a relatively

simple process, as official records were kept of their use and ➜

Winter 2008 Despatches ■ 23

IWM Q 031438



IWM Q 031567

➜ issue. That these details were considered important is vouched for

by the fact that virtually all the artillery pieces listed in the 1922

official Short Guide to the Imperial War Museum are accompanied

by details of their employment in important actions.

Perhaps the most important and novel aspect of the new

museum was its determination to make its collections relevant to

the individual, and to acquire items which were redolent of the involvement

of the common man and woman in the war, whether

at the Front or at home. Conway asserted as much in his circular;

stating that, although important, officially deposited items would

be ‘a dead accumulation unless it is vitalized by contributions expressive

of the action, the experience, the valour and the endurance

of individuals’. Later in 1917, in a letter to the Editor of the Daily

Telegraph, he spoke of a ‘divergence from the accepted museum

idea’, pointing out that:

‘Never before have the people been able to see the work of their

own hands as distinct from the work of a few highly specialized

exhibitors, and here the humblest war worker will be able to find

examples of the work he or she did for the Empire.’

Although examples of munitions could be acquired through official

and commercial channels, it was realized at an early stage

that, if it was to acquire a sufficiency of items relating to the

human dimension of the war, the museum would be heavily reliant

upon the generosity of the public. An appeal disseminated through

the press in April 1917 put it thus:

‘The personal factor will be of great importance in this collection,

and it is for things such as letters, photographs, drawings, souvenirs

etc., found on the battlefield, recreations and the arts and

crafts of trench life that the Museum Committee appeal.’

Formal measures were put in place to ensure the preservation of

Armistice Day at

the Imperial

Institute. Major

ffoulkes (left)

and colleague

place wreaths on

‘Nery Gun’.

the provenance of any objects acquired. An acquisition procedure

formulated in January 1918 required that:

‘If any history of the Exhibit is given connecting it with any Incident,

Regiment, Individual or Place, this should be certified in

writing by a competent authority, independent of the Collector or

Officer in charge of the Section.’

This scrupulous attitude to the certification and preservation of

an item’s provenance compares well with modern museum practices,

although it was not administered without problems. There

was some argument as to whether a table donated by the owner

of a French Chateau really had been used by Sir Douglas Haig.

When Beckles Willson moved his collecting operations to Palestine

in 1918, he was enraged to receive a letter from ffoulkes warning

him against acquiring ‘spurious souvenirs’. In this case Willson appears

to have been unjustly accused, as he was generally very careful

about provenance.

Various plans were floated, some quite grandiose, for the creation

of a purpose built home for the Imperial War Museum. The

most ambitious proposals were founded on the concept that the

Museum should also function as a national war memorial. With the

support of the Committee, Conway suggested that a memorial ‘in

the heart of a great War Museum’ would be a far more popular

means of commemoration than any ‘pile of sculpture’ could be.

Later in 1917 he discussed the concept in a letter to the Daily Telegraph,

going so far as to assert that ‘The Museum idea must then

sink perforce into a secondary place and the scheme becomes a

memorial, living and real.’ A more cynical view would be that

pushing the memorial aspect of the proposed museum enhanced

the chances of securing lavish public funding. Indeed, Conway referred

quite candidly to this, suggesting that although the public

might consider large expenditure on a museum an extravagance,

they would ‘insist’ that a memorial institution ‘should be costly in

sacrifice, splendid in character, and central in position.’ Unfortunately,

the Cabinet were not enthused by the Committee’s proposals,

not least because of the potential cost of such a project. They

also doubted such an institution’s ability to retain the interest of

the public for more than a ‘few years’.

The straitened economic circumstances of the post-war era meant

that, not only were grand ‘memorial’ schemes out of the question,

but also that more modest building plans for the Imperial War

Museum were rejected as unaffordable. The Committee, fearing

that the museum might never be established at all, were forced to

accept an offer of accommodation in the Crystal Palace, where the

new museum duly opened on 9 June 1920. It was not a happy location

for a museum. Environmental conditions within the Palace

fluctuated wildly, according to the weather. The iron framework

expanded and contracted alarmingly with changes in temperature

– causing panes of glass to crack or fall out, and allowing rain to

gush in. The floors were not designed to support large exhibits,

and had to be specially strengthened to accept the Imperial War

Museum’s artillery pieces. Meanwhile the tanks had to be left outside

in the open air, obviously at risk, and protected with hundreds

of yards of barbed wire.

The Museum’s ‘trophies’ of the Great War themselves became

the target of trophy hunters and the building proved hard to

patrol because of its size and layout. Ffoulkes was eventually

obliged to order the removal of all the smaller items of intrinsic

value. For security reasons, rifle bolts and machine-gun locks

were removed, and pistols were not displayed at all. When, in

1922, Earl Haig loaned the Museum a collection of items, it was

considered unsafe for the presentation caskets and swords of

honour to be displayed at the Crystal Palace.

The unsuitable surroundings in which the Museum was obliged

to function had a marked effect upon the nature of its displays.

Large items, such as aircraft and artillery pieces, tended to dominate,

with such smaller items as could safely be displayed (in the

limited amount of cases available) dispersed in rooms and ‘bays’

leading off the central aisle. These physical conditions accentuated

what can be discerned as a move away from the original

ethos of the Museum, as a place of record of the individual’s contribution

to the war.

In 1923, the Imperial War Museum’s agreement with the

Crystal Palace expired, and the Museum was re-located to the

Imperial Institute in South Kensington. Though not afflicted

with the same environmental problems as the Crystal Palace, the

accommodation at the new location was very limited in size.

This resulted in the disposal of many of the Museum’s exhibits,

now considered, in the words of ffoulkes, to be ‘redundant or of

little interest’.

Within the limited confines of the Imperial Institute galleries, the

larger exhibits were more in the ascendant than had been the

case at the Crystal Palace. Once again the centre of each display

area was packed with large exhibits. Smaller items were dispersed

around the walls. The limited space ensured that these were, overwhelmingly,

items which could be displayed ‘flat’, such as

firearms arranged in ‘trophies of arms’, trench signs, flags, or

lifebelts. However, it is evident that the original vision of the

Imperial War Museum’s founders lived on. One reviewer was

moved to state that:

‘The collection of trench relics is of the most comprehensive

nature, and has been made with a dramatic sense of the human ➜

24 ■ Despatches Winter 2008

Winter 2008 Despatches ■ 25


➜ meaning of war. All the little things which meant so much to sailor

and soldier have been included. The battered bully-beef tin even

has not been forgotten.’

Despite the dashing of hopes that the Museum would be the

official national war memorial, and the fundamental unsuitability

of its locations, the Museum’s founders did not lose sight of its

potential memorial significance. ffoulkes himself stated in a letter

that he regarded the battlefield trophies as ‘sacred relics’. In

October 1925, he wrote to the Times, suggesting that the Museum

was an ideal place to visit on Armistice Day, being ‘an outstanding

war memorial which does not need any symbolical sculpture or

architectural setting...’ Ironically, ffoulkes himself had gone

further than any man in introducing ‘symbolical sculpture’ into the

Museum when, by dint of some swift thinking, he had acquired the

top section of the original temporary Cenotaph, when it was being

dismantled to make way for the permanent structure.

During the Museum’s time at the Crystal Palace and in the first

years of its sojourn at the Imperial Institute, memorialisation was

both conscious and overt. For example, the area devoted to

‘Women’s Work’ was not entirely devoted to such activities as

munitions production or nursing. It also contained a ‘Memorial

Shrine to the women who lost their lives during the war’. A contemporary

photograph shows the entrance, adorned with the words

‘They lost their lovely youth facing the rough cloud of war’.

In the records which exist for Armstice Day ceremonies held at the

Museum it is apparent that some exhibits were elevated to the level

of what might be termed ‘icons of remembrance’. Typically, the twominute’s

silence would be signalled by ringing the bell of HMS

Implacable, and concluded by a call on a bugle which had been

used by the Gordon Highlanders at the Battle of Loos, in 1915. The

public would then be invited to lay wreaths and floral tributes on

‘certain exhibits of outstanding importance’. In 1924, these comprised:

a howitzer which had been fitted to HMS Vindictive for the

Zeebrugge raid of 1918; the top of the original Cenotaph; and a 13

Pounder Gun associated with the winning of three Victoria Crosses

by ‘L’ Battery, Royal Horse Artillery in 1914.

In 1936, the Museum moved to its current home. Although the

gallery space was less constricted than it had been in the Imperial

Institute, it is interesting to note how closely the layout of the

displays mirrored those which had been seen in the previous

location. This may well have been due to the influence of a new

Director-General, namely L.R. Bradley, who was appointed to the

post in 1937. Essentially conservative in his outlook, he feared for

the entire future of the Museum as a new war loomed. Already,

since 1932 and, perhaps, in keeping with the pacifist tendencies of

the era, Armistice celebrations had been somewhat scaled down.

Bells, bugles and public wreath laying had been replaced by a

relay of the BBC’s live radio coverage of the service in Westminster

Abbey. In 1939 however, the role of the Museum as a place of

memorial was once again raised, in a memorandum written by

Conditions at the

Crystal Palace.

Warders display

the largest and

smallest aerial


Bradley to recommend that the Museum be permitted to collect

items relating to the new war. He characterized the Museum as

‘perhaps, more of a memorial than a museum in the accepted meaning

of the word’. Fearing that another World War might rob the

museum of its raison d’être, and lead to its closure, he was moved

to refer to the many gifts which had been received from donors:

‘who have regarded this institution as a war memorial rather

than a museum, and to disperse them to institutions not having the

same associations with memories of the Great War could be

regarded as a departure from the donor’s wishes’.

Once again the memorial concept was being invoked as a means

of ensuring the Imperial War Museum’s future.

Fortunately Mr Bradley’s darkest fears did not come to pass. The

Imperial War Museum not only survived, but had its terms of

reference extended and, eventually evolved into the modern,

multi-site institution that we know today. Many of the issues

discussed above – such as the importance of provenance and the

imposition of memorial significance on certain objects – are as

alive and important today as they were in the 1920s. Furthermore,

great value is still placed on those objects which speak most

eloquently of the human experience of war. Consequently the

Imperial War Museum is far from being the ‘dead accumulation’ of

objects feared by Sir Martin Conway, but is indeed ‘vitalized by

contributions expressive of the action, the experience, the valour

and the endurance of individuals’.

■ A full-length, footnoted version of this paper can be found in

Matters of Conflict. Material Culture, Memory and the First

World War. Ed. N J Saunders, Routledge 2004.

IWM Q 031453

26 ■ Despatches Winter 2008

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