A little known piece of the museum’s history is that the art collection was the principal reason cited in the House of Lords to acquire the Bethlem Hospital building in Lambeth, which is now the IWM London site.
In a speech to the House of Lords in 1932, Lord Conway, the first Director of the museum, suggested the works of art were the better part of the museum’s exhibits as “far more striking” and “far more interesting” than the guns and weapons.
Lord Conway argued that the collection would appeal to, “people like myself with no engineering knowledge, no interest in weapons and other machines,” and particularly to those south of the river where there was no local museum or gallery.
In the interwar period, IWM’s art collection consisted mainly of works by official First World War artists, such as Sir William Orpen. Today the IWM has a unique collection of art about Twentieth and Twenty-First century conflict. This includes the second largest collection of Modern British art after the Tate and a growing number of contemporary works.
Part of what has helped to achieve such a significant collection was the creation of the Artistic Records Committee (ARC) in 1972. The ARC effectively employed artists as researchers in a variety of conflict, and peace-time, situations. The museum became a patron of the arts, suggesting its continued interest in British art and artists.
The first ARC commissioned artist was Ken Howard who travelled to Northern Ireland to make an artistic record of the British Army’s activities there. Howard’s work was the first artistic commission since 1945.
In 1982 Angela Weight became the new Keeper of Art. Weight endeavoured to change the outlook of the ARC scheme to reflect the evolving nature of contemporary art and contemporary warfare. Though artists such as Howard had made an invaluable contribution to the documentation of conflict, the ARC wanted to move away from the artist as recorder and towards the artist as provider of a personal and critical response to war.
IWM became more adventurous in its art collecting policy as the commissions demonstrated a more ambitious perspective. The images of John Keane at work during the Gulf War visibly demonstrate an ARC commissioned artist as researcher.
Furthermore, the revitalised ARC modernised the commissions in terms of media, commissioning a film installation by Graham Fagen in response to the war in Kosovo in 1999.
In 2001, the ARC changed its name to the Art Commissions Committee (ACC). A more recent example of the ACC’s interest in commissioning and exhibiting variable media is Roderick Buchanan’s film ‘Scots Irish/Irish Scots’. The film project was Buchanan’s response to Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement. The work grew from Buchanan’s own personal interest in the two communities, coming from a mixed Catholic and Protestant family himself.
‘Scots Irish/Irish Scots’ comprises two films each following a Scottish flute band from both sides of the Sectarian divide. Irish Republicans and Northern Irish Protestants have always sought and found support in Scotland. During the Troubles bandsmen from Northern Ireland would travel to Scotland regularly in support of Scotland’s major parades; Scottish people in return would do the same for the big parades in Northern Ireland. Buchanan aimed to present the experience of two communities who take the lead in publicly communicating their values and beliefs.
Works of art have formed an intrinsic and important collection at IWM since the museum’s creation in 1917, as have approximately 45 ARC/ACC commissioned artists who have shared with visitors to the museum their documentation of, and critical enquiry into, war, conflict and peace.
(The Lord Conway quotes were taken from Science Museum Nominal File number 920 PT3 1931-1951 Parliamentary Debates House of Lords Official Report [Unrevised] Motion-Imperial War Museum, 30th November 1932 [London: HMSO, 1932]).