Imperial War Museum in London

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Imperial War Museum is a British national museum organisation with branches at five locations in England, three of which are in London. The museum was founded during the First World War in 1917 and intended as a record of the war effort and sacrifice of Britain and her Empire. Today the museum gives its mission as "to enable people to have an informed understanding of modern war and its impact on individuals and society".

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 first, in 1976, was a historic airfield in Cambridgeshire now referred to as Imperial War Museum Duxford. In 1978 the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast became a branch of the museum, having previously been preserved for the nation by a private trust. In 1984 the Cabinet War Rooms, an underground wartime command centre, was opened to the public. From the 1980s onwards the museum's Bethlem building underwent a series of multimillion-pound redevelopments, completed in 2000. Finally, 2002 saw the opening of Imperial War Museum North in Trafford, Greater Manchester, the fifth branch of the museum and the first in the north of England.

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 museum is funded by government grants, charitable donations and revenue generation through commercial activity such as retailing, licensing, and publishing. Admission is free to Imperial War Museum London and Imperial War Museum North, but an admission fee is levied at the other branches. The museum is an exempt charity under the Charities Act 1993 and a non-departmental public body under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The current Chairman of the Trustees is Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire. Since October 2008, the museum's Director General has been Diane Lees.



On 27 February 1917 Sir Alfred Mond, an MP and First Commissioner of Works, wrote to the Prime Minister David Lloyd George to propose the establishment of a National War Museum. This proposal was accepted by the War Cabinet on 5 March 1917 and the decision announced in The Times on 26 March. A committee was established, chaired by Mond, to oversee the collection of material to be exhibited in the new museum.

This National War Museum Committee set about collecting material to illustrate Britain's war effort by dividing into subcommittees examining such subjects as the Army, the Navy, the production of munitions, and women's war work. There was an early appreciation of the need for exhibits to reflect personal experience in order to prevent the collections becoming dead relics. Sir Martin Conway, the Museum's first Director General, said that exhibits must 'be vitalised by contributions expressive of the action, the experiences, the valour and the endurance of individuals'. The museum's first curator and secretary was Charles ffoulkes, who had previously been curator of the Tower of London armouries. In July 1917 Mond made a visit to the Western Front in order to study how best to organise the museum's growing collection. While in France he met French government ministers, and Field Marshal Haig, who reportedly took great interest in his work. In December 1917 the name was changed to the Imperial War Museum after a resolution from the India and Dominions Committee of the museum.

The museum was opened by The King at the Crystal Palace on 9 June 1920. 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 every one 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. While the Act was being debated, some Parliamentarians felt that that museum would perpetuate an undesirable war spirit and Commander Joseph Kenworthy MP said that he would 'refuse to vote a penny of public money to commemorate such suicidal madness of civilisation as that which was shown in the late War'. On the August Bank Holiday 1920, the first public holiday since the museum's opening, 94,179 visitors were received, while 2,290,719 had visited the museum by November 1921.


In 1924 the museum moved to the Imperial Institute building (demolished in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for Imperial College) in South Kensington. While this location was more central and in a prestigious area for museums, the accommodation itself proved cramped and inadequate and in 1936 a new permanent location was found south of the River Thames in Southwark.

The building, designed by James Lewis was the former Bethlem Royal Hospital which had been vacated following the hospital's relocation to Beckenham in Kent. The site was owned by Lord Rothermere, who had originally intended to demolish the building entirely in order to provide a public park in what was a severely overcrowded area of London. Eventually the central portion of the hospital building was retained while its two extensive wings were removed and the resulting space named Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, after Lord Rothermere's mother. Sir Martin Conway described the building as '...a fine building, really quite noble building, with a great portico, a distinguishing dome, and two great wings added to it for the accommodation of lunatics no longer required. This particular building can be made to contain our collection admirably, and we shall preserve from destruction quite a fine building which otherwise will disappear'. The 'distinguishing dome' was added by Sydney Smirke in 1846 and housed the hospital's chapel. The museum was reopened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) in its new accommodation on 7 July 1936.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the museum began to collect material documenting the conflict. With the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in May/June 1940, however, the British Army's shortage of equipment saw eighteen of the museum's artillery pieces return to military service. 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. These included the submarine fuel pipeline PLUTO, the fog dispersal method FIDO, and flame weapons such as the Churchill Crocodile and Wasp Universal Carrier. However, due to bomb damage to both the building and exhibits, the museum was obliged to reopen its galleries piecemeal. The museum reopened a portion of its galleries in November 1946. A third of the galleries were opened in 1948 and a further wing opened in 1949.

In 1953, with Commonwealth forces engaged in Korea and Malaya the museum began its current policy of collecting material from all modern conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces were involved. This would eventually lead to the preservation of the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Belfast, which became a branch of the museum in 1978.

Later in 1968 on 13 October the Museum was attacked by an arsonist, Timothy John Daly, who claimed he was acting in protest against the exhibition of militarism to children. He caused damage valued at approximately £200,000, not counting the loss of irreplaceable books and documents. On his conviction in 1969 he was sentenced to four years in prison.

In 1969 RAF Duxford, a Royal Air Force fighter airfield in Cambridgeshire was declared surplus to requirements by the Ministry of Defence. Needing further space, the museum duly requested permission to use part of the site as temporary storage. The entire site was later transferred to the museum in February 1976 and Duxford, now referred to as Imperial War Museum Duxford became the museum's first branch. Also during the 1970s the government raised the possibility of the museum taking over the historic Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall. The museum was reluctant due to its new commitments related to Duxford and HMS Belfast, but agreed in 1982. For some years the museum was marketed as 'The new Imperial War Museum'. This atrium, with its concentration of military hardware, has been described as 'the biggest boys' bedroom in London'. This first phase cost £16.7 million (of which £12 million was provided by the government) and the museum was reopened by The Queen on 29 June 1989.

In September 1992 the museum was the target of a Provisional Irish Republican Army attack against London tourist attractions. Two incendiary devices were found in a basement gallery, but were extinguished by staff before the arrival of the fire brigade, and caused only minor damage.

The second stage of the redevelopment of the Southwark building, during which the museum remained open to the public, was completed in 1994.

The following year, 2000, the final phase of the Southwark redevelopment was completed. The development included the installation of the museum's Holocaust Exhibition which was opened by the Queen on 6 June 2000. This was the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust in a UK museum, and had taken five years at a cost of £5 million. Two years later, in July 2002, Imperial War Museum North was opened.

Between 2004-2010 the museum was a partner in a national learning project entitled 'Their Past Your Future' (TPYF), part of the Big Lottery Fund's Veterans Reunited programme to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A partnership between the IWM, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh museum authorities, phase one included a touring exhibition seen by more than two million people, overseas educational visits and further activities run by local authorities. A second phase took a wider 20th century historical remit; it comprised a learning programme using overseas visits and social media, and a professional development scheme for educators. A digital archive of the project, online exhibitions and learning resources were also produced.

In August 2009 the Museum announced the creation of the Imperial War Museum Foundation. Chaired by Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere, the foundation is charged with raising funds, primarily to support the redevelopment of Imperial War Museum London's permanent galleries. In December 2010 it was announced that Prince William has become the foundation's patron. Plans were announced to redevelop IWM London's First World War gallery in time for the conflict's centenary in 2014, as part of a wider redevelopment of the building to be completed by 2019.


From the 1970s onwards the Imperial War Museum began to expand onto other sites. The first branch, Imperial War Museum Duxford opened to the public on a regular basis in June 1976. HMS Belfast became a branch of the museum in 1978. The Cabinet War Rooms opened in 1984, and Imperial War Museum North in 2002.

Imperial War Museum Duxford

Imperial War Museum Duxford, near the village of Duxford in Cambridgeshire, is Britain's largest aviation museum. Duxford houses the museum's large exhibits, including nearly 200 aircraft, military vehicles, artillery and minor naval vessels in seven main exhibitions buildings. The site also provides storage space for the museum's collections of film, photographs, documents, books and artefacts. The site accommodates a number of British Army regimental museums, including those of the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Anglian Regiment.

Based on the historic Duxford Aerodrome, the site was originally operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the First World War. During the Second World War Duxford played a prominent role during the Battle of Britain and was later used by United States Army Air Forces fighter units in support of the daylight bombing of Germany. Duxford remained an active RAF airfield until 1961. Many of Duxford's original buildings, such as hangars used during the Battle of Britain, are still in use. A number of these buildings are of architectural or historic significance and over thirty have listed building status. The site also features a number of purpose-built exhibition buildings, such as the Stirling Prize-winning American Air Museum, designed by Sir Norman Foster. The site remains an active airfield and is used by a number of civilian flying companies, and hosts regular air shows. The site is operated in partnership with Cambridgeshire County Council and the Duxford Aviation Society, a charity formed in 1975 to preserve civil aircraft and promote appreciation of British civil aviation history.

HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast, a Town class cruiser, was launched in 1938 and served throughout the Second World War, participating in the December 1943 Battle of North Cape and firing some of the first shots of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. She saw further combat in the Korean War. Expected to be disposed of as scrap after she was decommissioned in 1963, in 1967 efforts were initiated to preserve Belfast as a museum ship. A joint committee of the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence was established, and reported in June 1968 that preservation was practical. In 1971 the government decided against preservation, prompting the formation of the private HMS Belfast Trust to campaign for her to be saved for the nation. The Trust was successful in its efforts, and the government transferred the ship to the Trust in July 1971. Brought to London, she was moored on the River Thames near Tower Bridge in the Pool of London. Opened to the public in October 1971 Belfast became a branch of the Imperial War Museum on 1 March 1978, being acknowledged by the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Shirley Williams, as 'a unique demonstration of an important phase of our history and technology'. In service for 24 years HMS Belfast was in Frankland's opinion, capable of representing 'a whole generation of [historical evidence]'. 

Churchill War Rooms

The Cabinet War Rooms is an underground complex that served as a British government command centre throughout the Second World War. Located beneath the Treasury building in the Whitehall area of Westminster, the facilities became operational in 1939 and were in constant use until their abandonment in August 1945 after the surrender of Japan. Their historical value was recognised early on, and the public were able to visit by appointment. However, the practicalities of allowing public access to a site beneath a working government office meant that only 4,500 of 30-40,000 annual applicants to visit the War Rooms could be admitted. The museum agreed to take over the administration of the site in 1982, includes objects such as a Russian T-34 tank, a United States Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jet, and a British 13-pounder field gun which fired the British Army's first shot of the First World War. The museum also hosts a programme of temporary exhibitions, mounted in a separate gallery.

Imperial War Museum London: Building and surroundings

The Imperial War Museum has had three homes. Originally housed in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill, in 1920, the museum moved to space in the Imperial Institute in South Kensington during 1924, and finally in 1936 the museum acquired a permanent home in the former Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark. The hospital building was designed by the hospital surveyor, James Lewis, from plans submitted by John Gandy and other architects, and construction completed in October 1814. The hospital consisted of a range of buildings 580 feet long with a basement and three storeys, parallel to Lambeth Road, with a central entrance under a portico.<ref name=Bethlem/>

The building was substantially altered in 1835 by architect Sydney Smirke. In order to provide more space, he added blocks at either end of the frontage, and galleried wings on either side of the central portion. He also added a small single-storey lodge, still in existence, at the Lambeth Road gate. Later, between 1844–46, the central cupola was replaced with a copper-clad dome in order to expand the chapel beneath. The building also featured a theatre in a building to the rear of the site.<ref name=Darlington/>

The building remained substantially unchanged until vacated by the hospital in 1930. After the freehold was purchased by Lord Rothermere, the wings were demolished to leave the original central portion (with the dome now appearing disproportionately tall) and Smirke's later wings. When the museum moved into the building in 1936 the ground floor of the central portion was occupied by the principal art gallery, with the east wing housing the Naval gallery and the west wing the Army gallery. The Air Force gallery was housed in the former theatre. The first floor comprised further art galleries (including rooms dedicated to William Orpen and John Lavery), a gallery on women's war work, and exhibits relating to transport and signals. The first floor also housed the museum's photograph collection. The second floor housed the museum's library in its west wing, and in the east wing the map collection and stored pictures and drawings. This division of exhibits by service, and by civil or military activity, persisted until a wide-ranging redisplay of the galleries from the 1960s onwards. In 1972 the building received Grade II listed building status.

The original hospital building is now largely occupied by corporate offices. The 1966 extension houses the library, art store, and document archives while the 1980s redevelopments created exhibition space over five floors. The first stage created 8,000 m2 of gallery space of which 4,600 m2 was new, and the second provided a further 1,600 m2.<ref name=arupjournal/> The final phase, the Southwest Infill, was partly funded by a £12.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and provided 5,860m2 of gallery space and educational facilities over six floors. The basement is occupied by permanent galleries on the First and Second World Wars, and of conflicts since 1945. The ground floor comprises the atrium, cinema, temporary exhibition spaces, the permanent Children's War exhibition (extending into the basement), and visitor facilities. The first floor provides the atrium mezzanine, education facilities, and a permanent gallery, Secret War, exploring special forces, espionage and covert operations. The second floor features the atrium viewing balcony, two art galleries, a temporary exhibition area and the permanent Crimes against Humanity exhibition. The third floor houses the permanent Holocaust Exhibition, and the fourth floor, a vaulted roof space, houses the Lord Ashcroft Gallery. Opened in November 2010 the gallery exhibits the museum's Victoria Cross (VC) and George Cross collection, alongside the private VC collection amassed by Michael Ashcroft, 241 medals in total.<ref name=arupjournal/>

In 1986 the museum acquired the All Saints Annexe, a former hospital building in Austral Street off West Square. The 1867 building, which backs onto Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, was originally an orphanage opened by local philanthropist Charlotte Sharman, then later used as a hospital. It houses the museum's photographic, film and sound archives, and offices. 1999 saw the use of the surrounding park for purposes of commemoration or the promotion of peace. In 1999 a Soviet War Memorial was unveiled by the then Secretary of State for Defence George Robertson, and the Russian ambassador Yuri Fokine. The date of the unveiling (9 May) was significant as that day is marked as Victory Day in Russia. Also in May 1999 the Dalai Lama opened a Tibetan Peace Garden, commissioned by the Tibet Foundation, in the park. The garden features a bronze cast of the Kalachakra Mandala, contemporary western sculpture, and a pillar inscribed with a message from the Dalai Lama in English, Tibetan, Hindi and Chinese.


The Imperial War Museum's original collections date back to the material amassed by the National War Museum Committee. The present departmental organisation came into being during the 1960s as part of Frankland's reorganisation of the museum. The 1970s saw oral history gain increasing prominence and in 1972 the museum created the Department of Sound Records (now the Sound Archive) to record interviews with individuals who had experienced the First World War. Since the opening of the Holocaust and Crimes against Humanity exhibitions, a collecting department has been established to support them. The museum maintains an online database of its collections named Collections Online.


There are eight departments responsible for different aspects of the museum's collections.

  • The Department of Documents holds private papers such as letters and diaries from both individual soldiers and civilians to high-ranking officers such as Field Marshals Bernard Montgomery, Sir John French and Henry Hughes Wilson. Also of note are manuscripts by war poets Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. The Department holds the official British records of the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals and a variety of other official records. The Department also houses the UK National Inventory of War Memorials.
  • The Art department holds much of the work of official war artists from both world wars, and contemporary art from after 1945. As early as 1920 the art collection held over 3,000 works and included pieces by John Singer Sargent, Wyndham Lewis, John Nash and Christopher Nevinson. The collection expanded again after the Second World War, holding around 70% of the 6,000 works produced by the Ministry of Information's War Artists Advisory Committee. The collection also includes a large number of propaganda posters from many countries and periods. In 1972 the museum's Artistic Records Committee was established to commission artists to cover contemporary conflicts.
  • The Film and Video Archive is one of the oldest film archives in the world and preserves a range of historically significant film and video material. The collection includes the official British film record of the First World War and the 1916 feature film The Battle of the Somme, which is inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World register. The collection also includes the official British film record of the Second World War, amateur film and film of other conflicts since 1945. Material from the collection was used to make a number of well-known TV documentary series including The Great War and The World at War.
  • The Photograph Archive preserves the official British photographic record of both World Wars and conflicts since 1945. It currently holds more than 6,000,000 images and the Second World War collection includes the work of photographers such as Bill Brandt, Cecil Beaton and Bert Hardy. Both the Film and Photograph Archives are official repositories for material produced by the Ministry of Defence and so include material from contemporary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The Department of Exhibits and Firearms is responsible for the care of the Museum's collection of three-dimensional objects. The cores of the collection are the firearms collection, collections of artillery, ordnance and vehicles, and medals and decorations such as the Victoria Cross and George Cross. Some of the department's larger exhibits can be seen in the photograph of the atrium above. Other exhibits include artillery pieces whose crew won the Victoria Cross, a Lee Enfield rifle used by T. E. Lawrence, and a Colt 1911 automatic pistol owned by Winston Churchill.
  • The Department of Printed Books is responsible for the Museum’s collection of printed materials including books, maps and ephemera. When the Museum was established the distinguished historian Sir Charles Oman was given responsibility for the library. In 1922 the library collection contained a reported 20,000 items and 60,000 items in 1953.<ref name="Imperial War Museum page 7"/> Today the Museum gives the size of its library collection as 270,000 items.
  • The Sound Archive, originally named the Department of Sound Records, administers a collection of over 56,000 hours of historical recordings and was opened to the public in July 1977. The core of this collection are oral history interviews with people who were affected by war in the 20th century. This collection has been used for a series of radio programmes and books, called Forgotten Voices, about war in the 20th century. The collection also includes historic broadcasts, and actuality sound effects recorded during conflicts.
  • The Department of Holocaust and Genocide History supports the Holocaust and Crimes against Humanity exhibitions. The department seeks to acquire archival material and artefacts to illustrate its subject; notable acquisitions include the Gianfranco Moscati collection which documents the persecution of the Jews during the Second World War. The department also answers public and academic enquiries, advises other bodies working on related subjects, represents the museum at relevant events and supports the museums' educational activities. It also occasionally undertakes external consultancy, for instance assisting with the establishment of a memorial room at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The Imperial War Museum is an executive non-departmental public body under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, from which it receives financial support in the form of a grant-in-aid. The governance of the museum is the responsibility of a Board of Trustees, originally established by the Imperial War Museum Act 1920, later amended by the Imperial War Museum Act 1955 and the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 and other relevant legislation. The board comprises a president (currently Prince Edward, Duke of Kent) who is appointed by the sovereign, and fourteen members appointed in varying proportions by the Prime Minister, and the Foreign, Defence, and Culture Secretaries. Seven further members are Commonwealth High Commissioners appointed ex officio by their respective governments. As of April 2010 the Chairman of the Trustees is Sir Peter Squire and his deputy is Sir Francis Richards. Past chairmen have included Admiral Sir Deric Holland-Martin (1967–77), Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Grandy (trustee 1971-78, Chairman 1978-89). During the Second World War Grandy had commanded RAF Duxford, and was Chairman during the planning of Duxford's American Air Museum, which opened in 1997.

The museum's Director-General is answerable to the trustees and acts as accounting officer. Since 1917 the museum has had six directors. The first was Sir Martin Conway, a noted art historian, mountaineer and explorer. He was knighted in 1895 for his efforts to map the Karakoram mountain range of the Himalayas, and was Slade Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Cambridge from 1901 to 1904. Conway held the post of Director until his death in 1937, when he was succeeded by Leslie Bradley. Bradley had served in the First World War in the Middlesex Regiment before being invalided out in 1917. He later became acquainted with Charles ffoulkes, who invited him to join the museum where he was initially engaged in assembling the museum's poster collection. Bradley retired in 1960 and was succeeded by Dr Noble Frankland. Frankland had served as a navigator in RAF Bomber Command, winning a Distinguished Flying Cross. While a Cabinet Office official historian he co-authored a controversial official history of the RAF strategic air campaign against Germany. Frankland retired in 1982 and was succeeded by Dr Alan Borg who had previously been at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. In 1995 Borg moved to the Victoria and Albert Museum and was succeeded by Sir Robert Crawford, who had originally been recruited by Frankland as a research assistant in 1968. Upon Crawford's retirement in 2008 he was succeeded by Diane Lees, previously Director of the V&A Museum of Childhood. She was noted in the media as the first woman appointed to lead a British national museum.


a. The Visual Arts Data Service (VADS), hosted by the University for the Creative Arts, provides online access to a large number of images from the Imperial War Museum's collections. The images are copyright cleared and free for use in UK education and personal research. This includes over 7000 images from the museum's poster collection, digitised and catalogued as part of a project in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. See: Posters of Conflict, Concise Art Collection and Spanish Civil War Poster Collection

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