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.”


Why the Imperial War Museums’ Archive Award Matters

The hard-fought defence of the Imperial War Museum’s library and related facilities from planned cuts will prove meaningless if public accessibility is not maintained and developed by IWM. The Museum’s mission statement of telling the story of the causes and consequences of conflict cannot be met unless archives are not only preserved but promoted through library and research services that enable public access to both archival material and supporting non-archival collections.

The recent accreditation of the IWM archive by the UK Archive Service Accreditation Committee not only vindicates the efforts of staff and other campaigners but can be used to protect the archives from new threats, such as any plans for re-location of collections to IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire.

The award of the Archive Service Accreditation makes IWM only the second national museum to be accredited, alongside the V&A, since the standard was introduced in 2013. It confirms IWM’s suitability as holder of certain public records. Not only does the archive award recognise good practice in archive services management but also serves to encourage and support improvement, including helping archive services “adapt and respond to user needs and interests, and develop their workforce.”

Recognition of IWM’s archive standards vindicates the efforts of staff and campaigners who fought tirelessly to save the reference library and related services from cuts during 2014/15. IWM’s library collection includes the War Memorials Archive, First World War Women’s Work Collection, War Office and Ministry of Information collections. These books and ephemera collections likely constitute archives under the Society of American Archivists definition. Moreover, the non-archival – or “non-core” library material shed light on the archival collections, thus their availability also plays an important role in public accessibility of the archival material.

Following major government cuts to the Museum’s grant, in 2014/15, IWM proposed to close its library, dispose of the majority of its 300,000 item collection, end important educational services, cut 60-80 jobs and close the educational/research Explore History facility at IWM London.

An astonishing figure of nearly 21,000 people signed an online petition to save the IWM library and other services, following a campaign lead by IWM library staff and the Prospect union. As a result of public pressure, the Government pledged £8 million over four years to safeguard the immediate future of educational facilities and IWM backed down from its most drastic moves, offering a reprieve to the library. Instead reduced services were imposed, including, a reduced Explore History service with closure on weekends, a reduced Research Room service, an end to the telephone collections enquiry and booking service and some job cuts to library staff. IWM finally backed down from its proposal to charge for access to the Research Room.


Petition to save IWM Library and services (Prospect union)


Prospect union members campaigning to save IWM Library (

Following the IWM Library campaign victory, Prospect union negotiator, Andy Bye struck a note of caution: “The huge publicity as the election looms has contributed to this climb-down. However, the long-term future of the library’s collections is still not guaranteed – the status of 240,000 library items has been changed so they are no longer part of the core collection. The devil may be in the detail and our members will continue to be vigilant about protecting this national resource.”

Like all museums, IWM has auctioned off “un-accessioned” and “duplicate de-accessioned” items in its collections, including books and ephemera. In “exceptional cases” of “last resort” IWM is permitted to dispose items for principally financial reasons if criteria are met.

Reduced services, such as an end to the telephone collections enquiry service that received some 22,000 calls a year, has reduced the public’s access to IWM’s collections. The latest threat is possible re-location of parts of the collection to IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire, 10 miles outside of Cambridge, where new a new £2.1 million archive storage complex is planned by IWM. These plans have been prompted by proposed new WW2 and Holocaust galleries as part of phase 2 of the IWM London regeneration project.

Even if only “non-core” items of the collection are re-located to IWM Duxford, the effect will be to reduce accessibility of core archival material, as non-core items play an important role in shedding light on archival material.

The latest project to develop new galleries could mask a major re-location of parts of IWM’s collections and staff, undermining public access – just as the fanfare, in 2014, of new £40 million WW1 galleries overshadowed drastic plans to end library and related services. If “non-core” library items are re-located, for example, the future of IWM London’s library staff must be questioned. This in turn raises questions about the future of the educational drop-in Explore History service and, even, the Research Room, which are both operated by senior library staff.


Research Room, IWM London

To continue to meet the standards of its new accreditation, IWM must consider how re-location of any parts of its archive or complementary items from the collection will affect the public: “The archive service demonstrates a good understanding of the needs and interests of the community it is established to serve. It has plans in place which detail the actions that are being taken to meet stakeholders’ access requirements and to continuously improve service provision.” [Requirement 3.2, Access Plans and Planning Requirement].

Any drastic re-location of IWM’s archive or complementary items may undermine accreditation standards, notably the duty to document plans “to continuously improve access and engagement in response to the identified needs and interests of its community. The plans are actively implemented and reviewed.” [Requirement 3.2.3]

Job cuts or re-location threaten the requirement that the archive service has a workforce “appropriate in experience and numbers to carry out the service’s responsibilities and plans.” [Requirement 1.6, Resources: Workforce]

The acquisition, appraisal and deaccessioning of archive items must be “holistically connected and clearly linked to the organisation’s mission statement.” [Requirement 2.2, Collections Development].

The accreditation standards, particularly with regards continuous improvement of accessibility, are in direct conflict with archive service reduction prompted for any reason, be it requirements of new exhibition space or government funding cuts. How these conflicts are to be managed is not discussed in the accreditation guidelines, except that in three years’ time, IWM will have to show to the assessor “progress against required actions or improvement actions outlined in the feedback to their initial application.”

Campaigners and staff opposing changes to education and research services which disrupt public access and the Museum’s ability to fulfil its public mission can hold IWM decision-makers to its new archive accreditation.