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Never-Before-Seen Documents Reveal IWM’s Plan for Evacuating its Art Collection During WW2

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Never-Before-Seen Documents Reveal IWM’s Plan for Evacuating its Art Collection During WW2

Never-before-seen documents from Imperial War Museums’ (IWM) collections will be displayed as part of a new exhibition at IWM London, uncovering how cultural treasures in British museums and galleries were evacuated and protected during the Second World War.

The documents, which include a typed notice issued to IWM staff in 1939, titled ‘Procedure in the event of war,’ and part of a collection priority list dated 1938, are among 15 documents, paintings, objects, films and sculptures that will be displayed as part of Art in Exile (5 July 2019 – 5 January 2020).

At the outbreak of the Second World War, a very small proportion of IWM’s collection was chosen for special evacuation, including just 281works of art and 305 albums of photographs. This accounted for less than 1% of IWM’s entire collection and 7% of IWM’s 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, Art in Exile will examine the challenges faced by cultural organisations during wartime. With the exodus of Britain’s cultural treasures from London to safety came added pressures on museums to strike a balance between protecting, conserving and displaying their collections. The works on IWM’s 1938 priority list, 60 of which will be reproduced on one wall in the exhibition, were destined for storage 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 will tell the wider evacuation story, examining how other national museums and galleries protected their treasures. In 1939, The National Gallery, the V&A and the British Museum – custodians of priceless collections of British and European Old Masters – were able to move works to safe country estates, and later to underground quarries, thanks to large amounts of government funds.

Alex Walton, Curator of First World War and Early Twentieth Century at IWM and curator of Art in Exile, says: “Early in its existence, IWM was ground-breaking in the way it collected everyday items about ordinary people’s war experiences, such as the ration books, diaries and clothing seen in the museum today. However, its collection also contained many important paintings and sculptures. Over eighty years ago, IWM London was the scene of hurried planning and quick decision making, as an evacuation project was put into motion to transport artworks that were considered in the 1930s to be some of the most precious items in the museum’s collection out of London.”

Art in Exile is part of Culture Under Attack, a free season of exhibitions, live music, performances and interventions at IWM London that explore how war threatens not just people’s lives, but also the very things that help make lives worth living. Comprising three exhibitions and a series of events, which collectively tell stories spanning a hundred years, Culture Under Attack reveals why some people try to eradicate or exploit culture, while others risk everything to protect, celebrate or rebuild that which defines us as human beings.

IMAGE: Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1145)