Museums and the Second World War

Back to the Future: How World War II shaped today’s museums. By Catherine Pearson

Over sixty years ago, towards the close of the Second World War, an editorial in the Museums Journal reflected on the effects of the conflict:

In the midst of the darkness and brutality of war, museums have seized all available opportunities for spreading the light of learning and culture. Their amazing development during the last twenty years has been tremendously accelerated - not retarded as was first anticipated - by war conditions. (Museums Journal, April 1945, p1)

By contrast, the general conception of the wartime museum is now one of decline: the result of the enforced closure of museums, the underground storage of precious objects and the depletion of curatorial staff. So why did contemporaries present such an alternative view and can knowledge of this period be of any relevance to museum policy today?

In fact, this period has closer connections to current issues than would at first appear. The outbreak of war coincided with the debates arising from the publication of Frank Markham’s Report on the Museums and Art Galleries of the British Isles (1938). Many of the issues Markham identified such as inadequate finance for regional museums, the lack of government recognition for the museum’s role in education and the need for appropriate salary scales for staff, remain familiar concerns today. The Report retains its relevance because the intervention of war shelved the Government’s consideration of Markham’s reforms and prevented them from being put into effect.

Nevertheless, the Report had a considerable influence on museum staff who responded to Markham’s vision of closer co-operation between museums and the increased use of ‘visual education’ through the means of temporary travelling exhibitions. Ironically, the war would create the conditions to enable these recommendations to be achieved. Markham called for collections to be linked to current issues in order to ‘make it obvious to the man in the street that he is part of history’. On the eve of a war that would encompass the total population, curators recognised the opportunity to fulfil this responsibility. They embarked on a period of experimentation in display and exhibition that is now largely forgotten but which attracted large audiences and, above all, new visitors to museums.

Early fears that museums would be closed for the duration of the conflict were quickly dismissed by a Museums Association campaign to gain Government approval for the service to continue. This was granted in January 1940 and it is estimated that between 1938 and 1948, 640 out of a total of 800 museums remained open. Those most affected by closure were the London based national museums (with the notable exception of the National Gallery) but this had the result of shifting attention and resources to the regional museums and enabled a renaissance that anticipated the recommendations of the Regional Task Force by some sixty years.

Since their most highly prized exhibits were now in storage for reasons of safety, regional museums found themselves having to re-evaluate their reserve collections or look at new ideas and concepts to create the themes for display. The use of the temporary exhibition became the cornerstone of wartime museum activity and the pooling of knowledge and resources between museums created a network for the circulation of shared exhibits. The introduction of modern art and design to new audiences was a major development from this time and is most clearly evidenced in the travelling exhibitions featuring the work of the Official War Artists or the Design and Industries Association, which were shown at the National Gallery before embarking on tours around the regions. Regional museums also created their own exhibitions such as ‘Moore-Piper-Sutherland’, which was devised by Philip Hendy, then Curator of Art at Leeds City Art Gallery and featured the work of these prominent contemporary artists. This exhibition toured the Midlands and the North of England during 1941 and 1942 to popular acclaim, attracting an audience of 52,000 in Leeds, whilst being voted the best exhibition in twelve months at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. Exhibitions such as ‘Ballet Décor and Design’ (1943) were shown in conjunction with visits to towns by touring ballet companies and following the lead of the National Gallery, regional museums were quick to broaden their appeal by offering concerts in their galleries. Such events demonstrated the curiosity for new experiences that existed amongst museum audiences and confirmed that museums had adapted to recognise visitors’ wartime needs.

Wartime museum visitors at an exhibition held at Colchester Castle Museum, 1945 (courtesy of Colchester Museums Service)

Curators also began to listen to the views of their audiences to a much greater degree than ever before. A survey undertaken at Leicester Museum in 1942 on the subject of temporary exhibitions captured visitors’ impressions of the changing museum climate and analysed their reasons for visiting, eliciting such responses as: ‘I come whenever there is a special exhibition, as I find the permanent collection on the whole uninspiring’ and ‘No [I am not a regular visitor] but three times to this exhibition with progressive appreciation’.

This greater empathy with audiences witnessed the democratisation of the museum space as local communities were encouraged to make their own artistic contributions to museum displays. ‘Pictures from Halifax Homes’ an exhibition dating from 1942, consisted of paintings and drawings owned by the town’s citizens and can be seen as an early forerunner of the ‘People’s Shows’ devised by Walsall Museum in the early 1990s. The ‘Social History of British Life’ exhibition created by students of the Sheffield College of Arts and Crafts was shown at the Geffrye Museum and allowed children to directly engage with the display - a new concept in an era dominated by the glass case.

In line with Markham’s plea for museums to reflect current issues, museum objects gained a further layer of meaning in this period through their use to demonstrate scientific and geological concerns, to highlight agricultural issues associated with increasing food production, or to draw attention to public health. Museum exhibition skills were in demand in order to transmit the messages of national publicity campaigns but government support came at a price. Whilst the increase in temporary exhibitions was centrally funded for the first time through organisations such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), museums were also obliged to show exhibitions that were more blatant in their propaganda, as devised by the Ministry of Information (MoI). These exhibitions were distributed by the Museums Association but met with diffidence on the part of curators who frequently attempted to tone down the theme of the displays or refused to co-operate at all. Curatorial complacence led the MoI to complain that ‘if the curators would play their part, the small travelling units provided by the MoI might well be made the centre of larger shows’. Nevertheless, the MoI’s resources helped to modernise display techniques and introduced the use of film projectors in museums on the understanding that MoI films were to be shown on alternate weeks to educational films.

Museums expanded their role in education through the wartime period, initially due to the necessity of meeting the schooling needs of evacuees but later through the development of specific classes and training to meet the demand for knowledge about music, art and literature, fuelled by the wartime cultural climate. The Geffrye Museum, Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery and Derbyshire Museums Service all either developed extensive education programmes or appointed their first Education Officers in this period. Other museums collaborated with the armed forces’ education divisions to offer art appreciation courses with the aim of fostering unit activities but also in anticipation of the vocational and leisure needs of service personnel following demobilisation. In all of these activities, the Museums Journal played a key role in sharing information about these initiatives and encouraging alliances and co-operation between museums.

Wartime curators expressed the view that their work in these years had made direct contact with their audiences and had achieved a much broader appeal to new visitors by connecting with the reality of daily life and relating collections, the arts and sciences to visitor’s demands. This developmental work was to be curtailed with the withdrawal of central support for temporary exhibitions and the shifting balance of interest towards the repairs and re-establishment of the national museums in the harsh post-war economic climate. A study of the wartime museum, however, illustrates that regional museums were able to successfully adapt and co-ordinate their activities in order to become a central part of their communities and this has a direct relevance to the aims of the Renaissance in the Regions programme. By gaining an insight into how these issues have been resolved in the past, museums could apply and adapt these outcomes to address policy and community concerns today. However, the lessons of the past also carry a warning. Frank Markham would be horrified to find that so much of his vision for museums in 1938 remains a part of museum debate over sixty years later. If museums gain a greater understanding of the legacy of the past, perhaps they can ensure that history’s judgement on their work is not one of missed opportunity.

This article first appeared in the Museums Journal, February 2005, Vol 105, No 2 pp 26-29.

Catherine Pearson investigated the history of Britain’s museums during the Second World War as the subject of her PhD at University College London, completed in 2008. Her research was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). She is currently editing the Second World War diaries of the curator and archaeologist, E J Rudsdale.

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