Construction Time Again

An octagonal kitchen building at Royal Bethlem Hospital, early 20th Century. LSC-210, courtesy of Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust

An octagonal kitchen building at Royal Bethlem Hospital, early twentieth century. Courtesy of Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust (LSC-210)

As work gets underway on the transformation of IWM London and the Large Exhibits Gallery specifically, we thought it might be good to take a look at how that particular space has evolved over the years.

The Imperial War Museum moved  to Lambeth Road in 1936, taking over the central section of the former Bethlem Royal Hospital. The building, completed in 1815, was constructed around a courtyard where the Chief Physician had his garden.

As the number of patients grew, the garden was replaced by an octagonal kitchen building, shown above in the early twentieth century. Before IWM moved in, the kitchen was demolished to make way for three single storey exhibition galleries.

The galleries under construction in 1935 by Hubert John Williams © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 509).

The galleries under construction in 1935 by Hubert John Williams © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 509).

Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery at The Imperial War Museum. © IWM (MH127)

Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery. © IWM (MH127)

The Museum was closed to the public for most of the Second World War,  and in January 1941, these galleries took a direct hit  and a number of exhibits, including the Short Seaplane, were damaged. The galleries were repaired after the war and the Museum reopened in 1946.

Although a significant improvement on the cramped conditions at the Museum’s former home in South Kensington, the galleries were still not spacious enough to house the increasing number of exhibits acquired after the Second World War. Plans were made for their replacement as early as the 1960s, but they remained unchanged until major redevelopment of IWM in the 1980s.

Demolition of the galleries at IWM London, 1986. © IWM (IWM 86 44 64)

Demolition of the galleries at IWM London, 1986. © IWM (IWM 86 44 64)

The first phase of the 1980s redevelopment saw the infill of the courtyard, replacing the old single storey galleries with a new structure and large exhibits hall. During the construction the foundations and a well from the Bethlem kitchen block were uncovered. Once the building work was complete, the  Museum was closed for four months  (November 1988 – March 1989) while the large exhibits were installed and new Second World War galleries fitted out.

IWM London Large Exhibits Gallery, 2008

IWM London Large Exhibits Gallery, 2008

The new IWM was opened by HM The Queen on the 29 June 1989 and between then and 2012 more than 14 million visitors have walked across it.

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