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The British Museum in wartime

04 Oct

The wartime, many of people’s favourite pastimes were curtailed. Professional football was suspended, bank holidays were (temporarily) cancelled, and some of London’s best-loved museums shut their doors. The British Museum closed to the public in March 1916 and did not fully reopen for nearly three years.

The British Museum : Removing sandbags in the Assyrian Saloon” by Sir Henry Rushby, 1918 ( (c) IWM)

The British Museum is one of London’s (many) iconic buildings. Free to enter since opening its doors to the public in 1759, it is one of the world’s great museums. In 1914 it still also housed the Reading Room that later became the British Library; it also had a branch in South Kensington that became the Natural History Museum.

For the first months of the war the Museum continued as usual, albeit with many of its staff off in the armed forces. By March 1916, 110 British Museum staff (and 53 at the Natural History Museum) were serving in the armed forces, while another 42 were sent to work in other government departments.

In November 1914, a series of lectures were held at the Museum in aid of Belgian refugees. In April 1915 a poem by Edward Shillito (published in the Times) described the visit of a wounded soldier to its galleries. In August, the Museum put out a call for regimental magazines to be sent to the Reading Room so that a national collection of them could be kept.

In February 1916, the Government announced that several London museums would be closed for the duration of the war – much to the shock and indignation of MPs and writers of letters to the editor of the Times.

From March 2nd 1916, a long list of museums were closed:

The National Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum were not closed, while the National Portrait Gallery had already closed.

Early 1916 must really have felt like a time of change. Conscription was introduced (with single men liable for conscription from the very same day that the museums were shut), bank holidays disappeared, and priceless antiquities disappeared from public view into tunnels under the city (as in the case of the Rosetta Stone and other smallish items) or covered with sandbags in empty galleries to protect them from air raids:

Temporary openings seem to have taken place in August 1917 and again in August 1918, but otherwise the museum remained closed apart from its famous Reading Room.

Another big shock hit the Museum’s supporters in the dark days of the winter of 1917-18, when the Government announced that the Air Ministry was to be housed in the British Museum building in Bloomsbury (as part of the expansion of civil service accomodation that had already seen St James’s Park occupied). There was considerable protest in Parliament, in the press and from learned people and groups.

After a few weeks of these protests, the Government backed down and announced that the building was “no longer necessary” for housing the Ministry. Handily, it turned out that there was enough room at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand and the Ministry moved there – marked today by a plaque on the site.

The British Museum did not remain completely empty, though. When the war ended and calls came to reopen the closed museums, it turned out that part of the Bloomsbury building was being used by government departments (as were the National Gallery and Portrait Gallery) that had to be moved out at the same time that the Museum was being repopulated with antiquities. The building gradually reopened over that first winter of peace.

War returned to the Museum prematurely into the 1920s Great War tank was displayed outside the museum. In late August 1939, with another World War virtually inevitable, the Museum was again closed and largely emptied to protect the contents from air raid damage. This time around, though, there was not the same protest – and the museum was damaged in the bombing of London.

Damage to the British Museum in the Second World War (from the BM’s ‘Local history: the British Museum in the 20th century’ learning pack)

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Sources:

Times

Historic Hansard online

British Museum website

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Posted by on 4 October 2012 in Places

 

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