IWM at Crystal Palace

A poster for Crystal Palace with the Great War Exhibition – Imperial War Museum which opened on 9 June 1920.

Plans to erect a replica of the Crystal Palace in south London have recently been unveiled, but how much do we know about the building’s use after the Great Exhibition of 1851? Following its removal to the park at Sydenham Hill and in the decades before the First World War, the Palace and grounds were home to the world’s first theme park; some 20 FA Cup Finals were even staged there.   At the onset of war in 1914, however, the building took on a rather more serious role [when it was used] as a naval training establishment.


Image © IWM (Q 18712) Detail. This image of uniformed WRNS officers marching past Dame Katharine Furse (Director) and Commodore R Williams Baulkley of the RNR in 1914 demonstrates the scale of Crystal Palace.

After the First World War, when the recently established Imperial War Museum was looking for a permanent home, Crystal Palace was offered as an interim location.   Floors were strengthened and 500 tons of exhibits were moved into the building in the space of six weeks.   This was no mean feat, achieved through the energy and enthusiasm of museum staff under the direction of IWM’s first curator Charles Ffoulkes and with the help of men from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

© IWM (Q 17196) Manoeuvring a French tank into position in the Army galleries.

© IWM (Q 20538) Getting the model 18 inch gun into place

The galleries, which opened in June 1920, featured many iconic exhibits which remain in IWM’s care today.    Some of these will shortly be returning to the transformed IWM London galleries.

© IWM (Q 17028) Detail. John Singer Sargent’s Gassed on display in 1920.

© IWM (Q 17031) Guns of the Royal Horse Artillery at Crystal Palace.

John Singer Sargent’s huge painting Gassed  was displayed in the art galleries at Crystal Palace (top) while the Army section included the E Battery and L Battery guns of the Royal Horse Artillery alongside the 9.2 inch howitzer (above).

© IWM (Q 31412) Visitors to the Imperial War Museum examine a model shortly after opening in 1920

During its first month at Crystal Palace the museum welcomed 250,000 visitors and throughout its tenure there between 1920 and 1924 more than 3 million visitors came to see the exhibits.

In 1924 the Imperial War Museum moved into two galleries adjoining the former Imperial Institute, South Kensington until 1935. On 7 July 1936, the Duke of York, shortly to become King George VI, reopened the museum in its present home on Lambeth Road, South London, formerly the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’.

You can find out more about the history of IWM as well as our major redevelopment project and  our plans to mark the First World War Centenary in 2014 at iwm.org.uk.

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