Imperial War Museums is the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact, focusing on Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present. It was founded on the 5th of March 1917 when the War Cabinet approved a proposal by Sir Alfred Mond MP for the creation of a national war museum to record the events still taking place during the Great War.
The museum was opened in the Crystal Palace by King George V on 9 June 1920. From 1924 to 1935 it was housed in two galleries adjoining the former Imperial Institute, South Kensington.
On the 7th of July 1936, the Duke of York, shortly to become King George VI, reopened the museum in its present home on Lambeth Road, South London, formerly the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’.
The Korean War led to a further redefinition of the IWM’s terms of reference to include all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces had been involved since 1914.
During the opening ceremony, Sir Alfred Mond addressed the King on the behalf of committee, saying that ‘it was hoped to make the museum so complete that everyone who took part in the war, however obscurely, would find therein an example or illustration of the sacrifice he or she made’ and that the museum ‘was not a monument of military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice’.
Shortly afterwards the Imperial War Museum Act 1920 was passed and established a Board of Trustees to oversee the governance of the museum. To reflect the museum’s Imperial remit the board included appointees of the governments of India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Originally housed in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill, the museum opened to the public in 1920. In 1924 the museum moved to space in the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, and finally in 1936 the museum acquired a permanent home which was previously the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the museum expand both its collections and its terms of reference, but in the post-war period the museum entered a period of decline. The 1960s saw the museum redevelop its Southwark building, now referred to as Imperial War Museum London, which serves as the organisation’s corporate headquarters.
During the 1970s the museum began to expand onto other sites. The museum’s collections include archives of personal and official documents, photographs, film and video material, and oral history recordings; an extensive library, a large art collection, and examples of military vehicles and aircraft, equipment and other artefacts.
The asylum was completed in 1815, but soon proved inadequate. After the initial transfer of 122 patients, blocks were added in the very next year for the criminally insane. The building was greatly enlarged by Sydney Smirke from 1835 onwards.
Smirke provided wings on either side (since demolished) or galleried blocks at the rear; he also enlarged the original low cupola into a tall copper-covered dome, mainly, it seems, to help extend the space in the chapel beneath it.
The museum’s trench clubs were used by the Home Guard, while other items such as sights and optical instruments were returned to the Ministry of Supply. The museum refused, however, to return some historic items such as a naval gun from HMS Lance (which had fired Britain’s first shot of the First World War) or a gun served by Victoria Cross-winning boy seaman Jack Cornwell.
The museum initially remained open but was closed for the duration of the war in September 1940 with the onset of the Blitz. On 31 January 1941 the museum was struck by a Luftwaffe bomb which fell on the naval gallery.
A number of ship models were damaged by the blast and a Short Seaplane, which had flown at the Battle of Jutland, was destroyed. While closed to the public the museum’s building was used for a variety of purposes connected to the war effort, such as a repair garage for government motor vehicles, a centre for Air Raid Precautions civil defence lectures and a fire fighting training school.
In October 1945 the museum mounted a temporary exhibition, the first since the end of the war in August, which showcased technologies developed by the Petroleum Warfare Department.