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The British Museum’s battle on the home front during the First World War

The museum’s archive reveals how air raids threatened the collection and George V intervened to stop the building being requisitioned

The British Museum’s archive reveals the impact of the First World War on the institution and its staff. On the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities we have delved into its files from the war years. Many of the staff volunteered or were enlisted, 11 of whom were killed. They left behind colleagues who did their duty protecting the collection from the summer of 1914 until the end of the Great War.

The museum was vulnerable to zeppelin and airplane raids on London. The dome of its round reading room made it a particularly distinctive target. Among the treasures requiring special protection during air raids were the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles. In October 1914 there was a plan to fill the Elgin room with sand to entomb the sculptures, but the government’s office of works warned that the building’s structure “would not stand the strain”. Instead, a few months later the pediment sculptures were moved down to the basement. The frieze panels, along with important Assyrian reliefs, were protected in the galleries with sandbags.

The King is concerned

Three years later King George V intervened to protest against a government proposal to allow the air ministry to requisition much of the museum. In an impassioned appeal Frederic Kenyon, the museum’s director, warned the government’s office of works that “the museum would then become a legitimate target for enemy attack”. The King shared Kenyon’s fears. The royal intervention against David Lloyd George’s government is revealed in a letter from Windsor Castle.

The war cabinet had decided to requisition the museum in December 1917. The museum’s director was also worried that civil servants smoking in a suite of offices in the upper galleries would create a fire hazard. The air ministry canteen would be installed in the basement casts gallery, to isolate food smells and contain fire risks.

Kenyon attended the war cabinet on 8 January 1918 to put his case. The secret minutes reveal his alternative solution: “Kenyon said a suggestion that the Bethlehem Hospital, more commonly known as the Bedlam Lunatic Asylum, should be used; but the war cabinet felt that this would hardly be suitable accommodation.” After Kenyon’s appeal, the government backed down, revoking its requisitioning.

Lord Stamfordham, George V’s private secretary, wrote four days later, expressing his relief at the reversal: “The King’s telegram appealing against the cabinet’s original decision had, I hope, some effect.”

The museum’s archive also reveals that its basement quickly became an impromptu bomb shelter, resulting in security concerns. Hercules Read, a resident keeper, warned the trustees that: “Having regard to the character of a large part of the neighbourhood surrounding the museum, it is only prudent to assume that a proportion of the refugees entering the museum might well belong to the more or less criminal type.”

The museum had remained open to visitors, but in March 1916 the galleries were shut because of shortage of staff and reduced government funding (the saving was £8,500, equivalent to more than £500,000 today). At the same time air raids on London were increasing, so there was growing pressure to move objects to safer locations. Although no bombs actually fell on the museum, in September 1917 one did hit the Bedford Hotel 200 yards away, killing 11 people.

In February 1918 the trustees and staff decided to store its movable treasures in the underground railway the Post Office was building to link London’s main sorting offices. One station was just 300 yards away.

Antiquities go underground

Among the antiquities stored on a station platform were the Elgin frieze, the Rosetta Stone, 118,000 Babylonian and Assyrian tablets and the entire coin collection. But the underground was damp and some fragile material had to be stored elsewhere. Prints and drawings, for example, were secretly dispatched to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

From the start of the war the government had been eyeing the museum as a space to be requisitioned. In June 1916 the basement of the Edward VII galleries was taken over to store the personal effects of interned German prisoners of war from the Cameroons, after British attacks on the German protectorate. Frederic Kenyon recalled that the basement looked like a “left-luggage office of a London terminus”.

After the end of the war, in November 1918, the museum faced the task of getting back to normal. Some material stored in the damp post office underground station required conservation, which led to the establishment of the museum’s first conservation laboratory.

The post office’s above-ground sorting office, was bought by the museum in 1995 to convert into a storage and study centre. This project was eventually dropped, and instead a new extension was added to the main building which opened earlier this year.

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The curator who wrote “For the Fallen”

The British Museum’s curator of Oriental prints and drawings wrote what became one of most famous war poems in the English language. Laurence Binyon (below) penned the lines of For the Fallen in September 1914 that are inscribed on thousands of memorials: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”

Binyon volunteered for military service in 1915. He told the museum’s director: “I know I am not the best material [he was 45], but it does seem as if every man would be wanted before the end.” Binyon worked as a hospital orderly in eastern France in 1916.

A war memorial is inscribed on the facade of the British Museum, just to the right of the portico entrance. Carved by Eric Gill and unveiled in 1923, it includes Binyon’s poem, although he is not named as the author.

While the memorial was being planned, there was discussion of gilding the incised letters of Binyon’s poem, but it was eventually decided to postpone this until the lettering became “dirty and indistinct”. A century of London’s polluted air has now darkened them and without a plaque naming Binyon, few visitors (or even museum staff) probably realise that the poet was one of the museum’s curators.