Art in Exile at the Imperial War Museum

BA History of Art and Design student, Sarahlouise Newman, evaluates a new exhibition showing art under fire.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is one of the most prominent museums in London. It focuses on the wars and battles which have affected the United Kingdom. Currently the IWM is holding a Culture under Attack season. This focuses on how art is affected in the time of war and how some people try exploit and destroy it while others try to defend and protect it. The season includes talks, performances and musical events including Rebel Sounds and What Remains. The Art in Exile exhibition focuses mainly on the Second World War and how Britain fought to protect its artefacts, while the Nazis burnt and destroyed art abroad.

Inside the first room shows how the IWM had to choose 280 pieces of art from the wide and varied collection, and how they evacuated it to safer locations, in order to preserve it for future generations. One fascinating exhibit is a document entitled ‘Procedure in the event of war’. This was issued to the staff of the IWM in 1939 as the Second World War began.  A selection of photographic evidence shows how the staff decided what to protect and what to keep on display at this time; the exhibition gives an insight into how they hid the work. It also shows how other national collections, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery, had to deal with the preservation and protection of art and how they all worked alongside one another.

One of the main parts of the exhibition shows sixty small photographs lined up on shelves.  These represent what was known as the Priority List, as each photograph of a piece of art that was sent to wealthy museum Trustees’ country homes across England in order to be protected. The homes were situated in the areas least likely to be affected by the German bombers. The exhibition also show how works such as Renaissance paintings were hidden in quarries across England and how museum staff would check on them at certain intervals.

In the last room of the exhibition, there is a computer and a projection screen on the wall. When the button on the computer is pressed, the projection on the wall provides a thought-provoking question for the visitor.  The visitor is then asked to choose Yes or No. Once they have has chosen their answer, the screen shows the percentage of those who agree and disagree with the statement.  This interactive part of the exhibition allows the visitor to understand the complex quandaries that museums had to deal with when Britain was at war.

The Imperial War Museum is based on Lambeth Road and is accessible via Lambeth North and Elephant and Castle underground stations. It is suitable for all ages and allows photography throughout the museum. Art in Exile is a free exhibition which runs until 5 January 2020.

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