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.”


A Preview of the New IWM London (July 2014)

Stephen Moss concluded, in his July 2014 preview of IWM London, the following:

One day, some future Big Think really will have to consign the Imperial War Museum to history. There will come a point where the first world war ceases to look like the start of everything and becomes part of a continuum. How much longer can the war on terror and the struggles of the present century be treated as addenda to the great wars of the first half of the 20th century? Something will have to give. But, for the moment, we should celebrate the museum’s reopening, and the British way of embracing difference – and diffidence. We may be unduly keen on going to war, but at least we haven’t built a monument to our martial spirit. Which other country, after all, would have housed its military museum in a former asylum? War and the madness of war.

I’m not sure that I agree. Regarding the name of the Museum, that is very much secondary to the content. The Museum does not glorify all war but, particularly, in its omissions, there is often a tacit approval of the militarism of Britain and its allies. This is partly achieved through overlooking the great suffering and deaths endured by resistors of British imperialism, be it in Kenya or modern day Iraq. Notably, the Museum’s ongoing Afghanistan exhibitions, ‘War Story’, continues to overlook the voices of Afghani victims, preferring British voices.

In its credit, the Museum’s art displays, ‘Truth and Memory’ and ‘IWM Contemporary’ have opened some space for victims’ perspectives. The Museums’ large collections of paintings capture the brutality of the dead and maimed soldiers of WW1. Meanwhile, Mark Neville’s video footage, recently on display, captured ordinary Afghani people at the market in the shadow of a passing military vehicle. In the new main atrium of the Museum, lie the remains of a bombed car from Baghdad, and a Reuters press vehicle that came under attack by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories. But, still we wait to be allowed to hear and see directly the ordinary victims.

Read Stephen Moss’ full article, published in The Guardian on 10th July 2014, here.