Never-before-seen documents will reveal IWM’s plan for evacuating our art collection during the Second World War in our new exhibition, Art in Exile. Uncover how cultural treasures in British museums and galleries were evacuated and protected during the Second World War.
The documents, including a notice issued to IWM staff in 1939, titled ‘Procedure in the event of war,’ and part of a collection priority list, are displayed among paintings, objects, films and sculptures.
Just 281 works of art and 305 albums of photographs were chosen at the outbreak of the war for special evacuation. This was less than 1% of our entire collection and 7% of our art collection at the time, which held works by prominent twentieth-century artists including William Orpen, John Singer Sargent, Paul Nash and John Lavery.
Exploring which works of art were saved and which were not, learn the challenges cultural organisations faced during wartime. The removal of Britain’s cultural treasures from London to safety added pressure on museums to strike a balance between protecting, conserving and displaying their collections. See 60 of the works on IWM’s 1938 priority list, reproduced on one wall, which were destined to be kept in the country homes of IWM’s Trustees, where it was believed German bombers were unlikely to venture.
As well as drawing on IWM’s own art collection, Art in Exile tells the wider evacuation story in a chance to unearth how other national museums and galleries protected their treasures. In 1939, The National Gallery, the V&A and the British Museum – who had priceless collections of British and European Old Masters – were able to move works to safe country estates, and later to underground quarries, thanks to government funds.
Art in Exile is part of Culture Under Attack, a free season of three exhibitions, live music, performances and talks at IWM London that explore how war threatens not just people’s lives, but also the things that help define us. Telling stories spanning 100 years, Culture Under Attack reveals why some try to erase or exploit culture, while others risk everything to protect, celebrate and rebuild it.