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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

Imperial War Museum in London: A Brief History

What is the Imperial War Museum?

The Imperial War Museum commemorates the service of civilians and soldiers throughout the British Empire since 1914 and housed in a former ‘mental asylum’ (psychiatric hospital).

History of the Imperial War Museum

When the Imperial War Museum was founded at the height of the First World War, people throughout Europe were reeling from the newly realised horrors of mechanized warfare, watching on helpless as a generation of young men were sent to their deaths.

Many in Britain were already beginning to question whether the war should have taken place. Sir Alfred Mond, the Liberal politician, founded the museum because he wanted to help the public make sense of what had happened, and to commemorate the ongoing service of civilians and soldiers throughout the British Empire. He said that the museum was not to be ‘a monument of military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice’.

The museum’s imperial origins have stirred controversy and hostility over the years; occasionally the building has been subject to violence. In 1992, the Irish Republican Army detonated a small firebomb in the First World War galleries, but this was not the first attack in the museum’s history; in 1968, a young man had set fire to the copper dome in protest (somewhat ironically) at the museum’s supposed glorification of war. The arson attack caused a huge amount of damage to the dome, which housed the museum’s archives.

Like most of central London, the Imperial War Museum was not left unscathed by the Blitz. In 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed the Naval gallery, causing considerable damage. However, much of the museum’s vast art collection had been evacuated by then, and several of its exhibits, including 18 artillery guns, were brought out of retirement in the fight against fascism.

The museum moved into its current home in the 1930s. When this neoclassical building was constructed in the early 19th century, it housed the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital, known as ‘Bedlam’, an asylum for the mentally ill which was founded in the 13th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries Bedlam was open to a fee-paying audience, which on public holidays would visit in swarms to stare and laugh at its wretched inhabitants.

This disruptive and disreputable practice had mostly ended by 1770, before Bedlam moved to this site. However, at the far right of the museum at the edge of the park, stands the Draft House Tavern. In the 19th century, the pub’s roof terrace was built as a viewing platform for patrons to catch a glimpse of inmates in the asylum grounds.

The sad tale of one patient, an American seaman called James Norris, captured the attention of the public in 1814 when he was discovered in the basement of this very building, mechanically restrained and in poor health, having been confined in isolation for 12 years. James’s discovery led to his release and a campaign for national lunacy reform.

The museum’s vast atrium, which used to contain multiple floors, still bears the imprint of the old hospital’s layout of wards and corridors.

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