New Home for War Museum (The Observer, July 1936)

Observer article, July 1936

On the opening of the Imperial War Museum at its new home on Lambeth Road, in July 1936. The Observer, Sunday, by “our special representative.”

The relics of the last war in the air, the battered and flimsy-seeming surviving bombers and fighters and seaplanes of the Great War, have been locked away for thirteen years.

We, who have had the words “war in the air” brandished over us for the past few years, who have watched the aeroplane become a deadly streak of armoured strength and speed, may ponder over these first, frail fighting ancestors once again, on and after Tuesday next.

On that day the Imperial War Museum opens at its new home, the Old Bethlem Hospital in the Lambeth Road. The wings of the hospital have been pulled down. Green lawns have taken their places. Its quadrangle has been covered over, making wide galleries for the world’s greatest collection of war memories, from howitzers to the paintings of Orpen and Sargent and Lavery.


Under the dome of Old Bethlem are ranged the sixty thousand books, the quarter of a million photographs, the maps, coins, posters, and documents which draw students and research workers from all over the world.

In one corner of the long library of war volumes stands the safe containing documents too precious to be openly displayed – the war diary, recently presented, of the Prince of Wales, now King Edward, Nurse Cavell’s last letter.

Much of the collection has been seen in the cramped galleries at South Kensington during the past thirteen years. Since the Imperial War Museum left Crystal Palace in 1923 however, the records of the war in the air have been phographs and models. Now the actual aeroplanes, taken from their storehouse at Cardington, are hanging just above the heads of visitors to the War Museum’s new galleries.

Anonymous bombers and fighters are there, representing their types. But stronger in memory are the battle-honoured aeroplanes, the Sopwith Camel which Lieut. Culley was flying when he brought down a Zeppelin in the North Sea, the papery looking, fragile seaplane which was the only British aircraft flown at the Battle of Jutland.


An hour’s stroll round its galleries is sufficient to show the design and intention of the new War Museum, to reveal the skilful lighting which removes all blurring of reflection from Orpen’s war portraits of Sargent’s water-colours, to appreciate the new spacing which enables the howitzers, “Mother” and “Barking Kate,” and the famous L. and E. Battery guns, and the naval gun served by Boy Cornwall, V.C., at the battle of Jutland, to rest in their galleries without confusion.

But to explore the War Museum thoroughly would take weeks. “You could spend,” as Mr H. Foster, the Museum’s librarian says, “a month of eight-hour days looking through the photograph library” – so detailed that a man could probably find the very trench he served in.

The library of war volumes does not stop at sixty thousand. Some five hundred a year are being added by Mr Foster. Even the hundred or so grey-bound rolls of honour recording a million British war dead, three or four lines to each, are not complete. Many records have still to be made.

The French official war history, already over fifty volumes, is not yet finished. The American and Canadian war histories have not even been published.


Private war memoirs occupy more space than any other type of war book, more even than the war histories of all the combatant countries, although German regimental histories alone run to four hundred volumes. No possible documented aspect of the Great War is forgotten, from the autographed works of President Wilson and Mr Churchill to the adventures of the dog “Rags,” American regimental mascot, autographed with his paw.

The spaciousness of the War Museum’s new home is, however deceptive. By no means all of the Museum’s five thousand works of art, Mr Foster is careful to point out, can be shown at one time. An economic arrangement of bays allows more to be shown than in the ordinary art gallery wall arrangement, but “we have to ring the changes even now.”

As for the future, apart from students and research workers (one German girl is at present using the Museum for her thesis on war propaganda), a different public is expected. “We had 300,000 visitors a year at South Kensington,” says Mr  Foster. “On some days we had more than the British Museum, although we could have tucked ourselves into one of the British Museum’s corners. Now we have moved away from our other museum competitors, and although we are south of the river, we are actually nearer Whitehall than we were at South Kensington.”


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