Shall we start at the beginning?

19th century print showing the exterior of the Bethlem Royal Hospital

19th century print showing the exterior of the Bethlem Royal Hospital © IWM (Q82924)

The National War Museum was founded in 1917 when the government decided that a museum should be set up to collect and display material related to the First World War, which was still being fought. Interest from the Dominion governments led to a change in name to Imperial War Museum. It was formally established by Act of Parliament in 1920.
The museum was opened in Crystal Palace by King George V on 9 June 1920. From 1924 to 1935 it was housed in cramped conditions in two galleries adjoining the former Imperial Institute in South Kensington. On 7 July 1936 the Duke of York, the future King George VI, opened the museum in its present home, the former Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam, thanks to the generosity of the 1st Viscount Rothermere.

Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery, 31 January 1941.

Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London, 31 January 1941 © IWM (MH127)

During the Second World War, the museum was closed from September 1940 to November 1946. The galleries suffered from extensive bomb damage in 1940 and 1941. Most of the collections were evacuated from London, but some were used in the war effort. Films and photographs were used for propaganda purposes, models were used in training and a limited number of guns were returned to active service.

General view of the first postwar displays in the Main Gallery

A general view of the first postwar displays in the Main Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, 1946. © IWM (D29240), detail

Apart from a small extension added in the 1960s, the galleries remained in their original state until the museum began a major redevelopment scheme in 1986 which provided the structure in which to place our First and Second World War exhibitions, our Conflicts since 1945 display, The Holocaust Exhibition and, most recently, The Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes exhibition.

Today, the museum is known as IWM London and is the flagship branch of Imperial War Museums (IWM), a five-branch organisation dedicated to recording people’s experiences of modern conflict, exploring the causes of war and its impact on people’s lives.

Stay tuned for more about our history straight from our archives in future posts.

0 comments
Submit comment