The Museum at war

The British Museum:

Britain officially entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. This is a look back at some of the measures the Museum took to cope with the threat of war.

During the First World War there was a new wartime threat – the air raid. Early air raids were carried out mostly by Zeppelins (airships), as few aeroplanes had long enough ranges to be effective or the ability to carry worthwhile quantities of munitions by 1914 and 1915. This archive photograph shows how objects in the Museum were protected against German air raids. Many of the large sculptures were too heavy to move and were protected in situ. The Egyptian gallery is eerily quiet, with the sculptures hidden away behind walls of sandbags.

This work is by war artist Henry Rushbury, who was 25 when war broke out. He served as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) during the war and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1918 he was invited by the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, and sent out to depict scenes of life in London. He produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the ‘sand-bagging’ of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. In this scene three sculptures in the Egyptian gallery have been surrounded by sandbags – Rushbury has labelled them as Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III and the goddess Sekhet.

The most important portable antiquities (such as the Rosetta Stone) were transferred to a station on the newly completed Postal Tube Railway, 15 metres below the surface of Holborn. Bombs did land on Holborn during the war, but no objects were damaged. Books, manuscripts, prints and drawings went in fifteen van loads to the National Library of Wales in their new buildings at Aberystwyth. This was such a westerly location that the threat of air raids was substantially diminished – aircraft at the time did not have the range to fly a return mission this far from the continent, and there were few strategic targets immediately nearby.

No damage was inflicted on the British Museum during the First World War, with the nearest bombs being dropped on Smithfield and Holborn.