Imperial War Museums (IWM) is a British national museum organisation with branches at five locations in England, three of which are in London. Founded as the Imperial War Museum in 1917, the museum was intended to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War. The museum’s remit has since expanded to include all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces have been involved since 1914. As of 2012, the museum aims “to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience'”.
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. The museum maintains an online database of its collections.
The museum’s documents archive seeks to collect and preserve the private papers of individuals who have experienced modern warfare. The archive’s holdings range from the papers of senior British and Commonwealth army, navy and air officers, to the letters, diaries and memoirs of lower-ranked servicemen and of civilians. The collection includes the papers of Field Marshals Bernard Montgomery, and Sir John French. The archive also includes large collections of foreign documents, such as captured German Second World War documents previously held by the Cabinet Office Historical Section, Air Historical Branch and other British government bodies. The foreign collection also includes captured Japanese material transferred from the Cabinet Office. The collection also includes files on Victoria and George Cross recipients, and correspondence relating to the BBC documentary The Great War. The documents collection also includes the UK National Inventory of War Memorials. In 2012 the museum reported its documents collection to contain 24,800 collections of papers.
The museum’s art collection includes paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, and works in film, photography and sound. The collection originated during the First World War, when the museum acquired works that it had itself commissioned, as well as works commissioned by the Ministry of Information’s British War Memorials Committee. 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. Notable First World War works include Sargent’s Gassed and other works commissioned for an, unbuilt, Hall of Remembrance. The collection expanded again after the Second World War, receiving thousands of works sponsored by the Ministry of Information’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee. In 1972 the museum established the Artistic Records Committee (since renamed the Art Commissions Committee) to commission artists to cover contemporary conflicts. Commissioned artists include Ken Howard, Linda Kitson, John Keane, Peter Howson, Steve McQueen and Langlands & Bell, responding to conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The collection also includes over twenty thousand items of publicity material such as posters, postcards, and proclamations from both world wars, and more recent material such as posters issued by anti-war organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition. The museum’s collection is represented in digital resources such as the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS), and Google Art Project. In 2012 the museum reported the total size of its art collection as 84,980 items.
The museum has occupied the former Bethlem Royal Hospital on Lambeth Road since 1936. 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.
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.
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 Sir William Orpen and Sir 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 September 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. 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. Before the 2013-14 redevelopment, the basement was occupied by permanent galleries on the First and Second World Wars, and of conflicts after 1945. The ground floor comprised the atrium, cinema, temporary exhibition spaces, and visitor facilities. The first floor included the atrium mezzanine, education facilities, and a permanent gallery, Secret War, exploring special forces, espionage and covert operations. The second floor included the atrium viewing balcony, two art galleries, a temporary exhibition area and the permanent Crimes against Humanity exhibition. The third floor housed the permanent Holocaust Exhibition, and the fourth floor, a vaulted roof space, accommodated 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.
The museum’s Film and Video Archive is one of the oldest film archives in the world. The archive preserves a range of historically significant film and video material, including the official British film record of the First World War. Notable among the archive’s First World War holdings is The Battle of the Somme, a pioneering 1916 documentary film (which was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 2005), and Der Magische Gürtel, a German 1917 propaganda film about the submarine U-35. The archive’s Second World War holdings include unedited film shot by British military cameramen, which document combat actions such as the British landings on D-Day in June 1944, and the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. The archive also holds government information films and propaganda features such as Target for Tonight and Desert Victory. The archive’s post-Second World War collections include material from the Korean War, Cold War material, the former film library of NATO, and material produced by the United Nations UNTV service in Bosnia. As an official repository under the 1958 Public Records Act, the archive continues to receive material from the Ministry of Defence. The archive also seeks to acquire amateur film taken by both service personnel and civilian cameramen. 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. In 2012 the museum reported the size of its film archive as being in excess of 23,000 hours of film, video and digital footage.
The museum’s Photograph Archive preserves photographs by official, amateur and professional photographers. The collection includes the official British photographic record of the two world wars; the First World War collection includes the work of photographers such as Ernest Brooks and John Warwick Brooke. The archive also holds 150,000 British aerial photographs from the First World War, the largest collection of its kind. The Second World War collection includes the work of photographers such as Bill Brandt, Cecil Beaton and Bert Hardy. Like the Film Archive, the Photograph Archive is an official repository under the 1958 Public Records Act, and as such continues to receive material from the Ministry of Defence. In 2012 the museum reported the size of its photographic holdings as approximately 11 million images in 17,263 collections.
The museum’s exhibits collection includes a wide range of objects, organised into numerous smaller collections such as uniforms, badges, insignia and flags (including a Canadian Red Ensign carried at Vimy Ridge in 1917, a Union flag from the 1942 British surrender of Singapore, and another found among the wreckage of the World Trade Center following the September 11 attacks); personal mementoes, souvenirs and miscellanea such as trench art; orders, medals and decorations (including collections of Victoria and George Crosses); military equipment; firearms and ammunition, ordnance, edged weapons, clubs (such as trench clubs) and other weapons, and vehicles, aircraft and ships. The museum holds the national collection of modern firearms. The firearms collection includes a rifle used by T. E. Lawrence, and an automatic pistol owned by Winston Churchill. The ordnance collection includes artillery pieces that participated in notable battles, such as the Néry gun, a field gun that was used during the 1914 action at Néry, and equipment captured from enemy forces. The museum’s vehicles collection includes Ole Bill, a bus used by British forces in the First World War, and a number of vehicles used by Field Marshal Montgomery during the Second World War. The museum’s aircraft collection includes aircraft that are notable for their rarity, such as the only complete and original Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 in existence and one of only two surviving TSR-2 strike aircraft, and aircraft associated with particular actions, such as a Supermarine Spitfire flown during the Battle of Britain. The museum’s naval collection includes HM Coastal Motor Boat 4 and a midget submarine HMS XE8. In 2012 the museum reported its exhibits collection to contain 155,000 objects and a further 357 vehicles and aircraft.
The museum’s library is a national reference collection on modern conflict, and holds works on all aspects of warfare, including regimental or unit histories (such as 789 rare German unit histories from the First World War), technical manuals, biographical material and works on war’s social, cultural, economic, political and military aspects. The library also holds printed ephemera such as the Imperial War Museum Stamp Collection, leaflets and ration books, printed proclamations, newspapers, trench magazines (such the Wipers Times) and trench maps. In 2012 the museum reported its library collection to contain over 80,000 items of historic importance (such as maps, proclamations and rare books) and a further 254,000 items of reference material.
The museum’s Sound Archive holds 33,000 sound recordings, including a large collection of oral history recordings of witnesses to conflicts since 1914. The museum’s sound collection originated in 1972 with the creation of the Department of Sound Records and the instigation of an oral history recording programme. The sound collection opened to the public in July 1977. The collection also includes recordings made by the BBC during the Second World War, actuality sound effects, broadcasts, speeches and poetry. As part of the museum’s First World War centenary programme, the museum is producing Voices of the First World War, a podcast series drawing upon the museum’s oral history recordings. In 2012 the museum reported the size of its sound collection as 37,000 hours.
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 January 2012 the Chairman of the Trustees is Sir Francis Richards and his deputy is Lieutenant-General Sir John Kiszely. 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.