The V&A Archive captures the incredible measures the V&A took to safeguard its collections during the Second World War. Our records tell of the heroic efforts of Museum staff to preserve our collections for posterity and to keep the V&A open to the public, providing some degree of normality during the wartime era.
The evacuation of objects was no unknown feat in the museum world – the First World War had seen wide-scale relocation of objects to secure locations across England and beyond. Sensing the rising tensions in Europe in the 1930s, the V&A arranged a full-scale evacuation plan that could be put into motion at a moment’s notice. This included claiming disused portions of the underground London Tube network – notably Brompton Road and Aldwych stations – for storage of works not susceptible to damage by damp, mould, and other delights. Arrangements were also put in place with property owners in the countryside, including at Montacute House in Somerset and, later, in a quarry in Wiltshire. Montacute also brought its own surprises: archival file ED84/264 recounts a summertime battle with moths feasting on the V&A’s precious tapestries and carpets.
In the meantime, staff were trained in first aid, decontamination and personal anti-gas protection. Others were shifted to different government departments or were called up for active service in the military. Air raid rehearsals began, during which staff practised moving the most valuable (and most portable) objects into fireproof safes or into an onsite bomb-proof store.
But which works to save first?
Curatorial departments were required to produce prioritised lists (categorised from A – D) of objects for rescue. The A list comprised objects ‘of primary importance’ to be removed instantly to the strongroom; the B list comprised those objects to be removed as soon as possible to underground tunnels; the C list included perishable or fragile large objects to be removed to secure country houses; and the D list consisted of large immovable objects to be protected in situ by sandbags.
There was a great deal of contention as to which objects belonged on the A list, largely stemming from the stipulation that these objects should be not only of primary importance but also worth £5000 or more. Keepers debated the merits of financial versus intrinsic value, and many made cases for the inclusion of key objects of lesser financial value – such as correspondence related to John Constable– on the Museum’s A list.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Underground passages and country houses were quickly filled with art treasures as the removal process accelerated. These unconventional stores were invigilated by warders day and night, with regular visits by curatorial staff who performed condition checks.
All of these precautions proved vital, particularly during the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. Countless incendiary bombs were dropped on the V&A buildings and grounds over this period, with warders often left to fight the subsequent blazes in the dead of night. A particularly significant attack took place on 19 April 1941, when bombs exploded on Fulham Road and Exhibition Road, severely damaging the west side of the Museum. Remarkably, very few objects were damaged throughout the bombing campaign, thanks to the valiant round-the-clock firefighting efforts and vigilance of the warders.
Did the V&A stay open?
Despite the accommodation of child refugees from Gibraltar in ground floor galleries, Board of Education staff housed in Library offices, RAF staff using the South Court as a canteen, and frequent bombings, sections of the Museum remained open to the public throughout much of the war – with the exception of the period of initial evacuation. The National Art Library remained fully open to the public throughout the bombing campaigns. The library’s most valuable holdings – including the nearly 12,000 volume-strong Dyce Collection – were moved offsite to country houses and to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Books that remained were spread widely across the Museum to prevent full-scale destruction of the holdings in a single attack.
At the end of the war, the Museum’s collections slowly made their way back from their safehouses, with most returned by 1948. The actions of the warders prevented enormous damage to the building and collections that remained within it, and we owe a great debt to all staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly – and in some cases risked their lives – in the interest of preserving the V&A’s collections for generations to come.