Museums in the Second World War : Curators, Culture and Change book cover
1st Edition

Museums in the Second World War
Curators, Culture and Change

ISBN 9781472479686
Published June 6, 2017 by Routledge
296 Pages - 65 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Exploring the role of museums, galleries and curators during the upheaval of the Second World War, this book challenges the accepted view of a hiatus in museum services during the conflict and its immediate aftermath. Instead it argues that new thinking in the 1930s was realised in a number of promising initiatives during the war only to fail during the fragmented post-war recovery. Based on new research including interviews with retired museum staff, letters, diaries, museum archives and government records, this study reveals a complex picture of both innovation and inertia.

At the outbreak of war precious objects were stored away and staff numbers reduced, but although many museums were closed, others successfully campaigned to remain open. By providing innovative modern exhibitions and education initiatives they became popular and valued venues for the public. After the war, however, museums returned to their more traditional, collections-centred approach and failed to negotiate the public funding needed for reconstruction based on this narrower view of their role. Hence, in the longer term, the destruction and economic and social consequences of the conflict served to delay aspirations for reconstruction until the 1960s. Through this lens, the history of the museum in the mid-twentieth century appears as one shaped by the effects of war but equally determined by the input of curators, audiences and the state. The museum thus emerges not as an isolated institution concerned only with presenting the past but as a product of the changing conflicts and cultures within society.

Table of Contents

Timeline: Major events around the Second World War and the Home Front

Introduction: a new perspective

A new perspective on wartime museums

The accepted history

Museums in the mid twentieth century

Sources and evidence


Individuals in politics and organisations

Individuals in museums


PART I: 1918–1939: Between the wars

Chapter 1 Between the wars: museums and cultural politics

Education, the electorate and museums

The need to reform the museum service

The Miers Report and the Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries

Towards modernity

Regional museum federations

A significant period for museums

Chapter 2 Charting progress: the Markham report

Social and economic reforms: the context for the review

Education and citizenship

The bid for a nationwide museum service

The Second World War: impediment or impetus?

Miers and Markham: the modernising agenda

Chapter 3 Museums before the war: the context for reform

The context for reform

Markham recommends a community based service

Museums and identity

Education in museums

Employment and qualifications – women and men

A new vision for provincial museums


Part II: 1939–1940: At the start of the war

Chapter 4 Confronting conflict: collections, closings and openings

Protecting the collections

Museums as war begins

1939 – The campaign to remain open: classes and concerts

1939: Openings and closings

1940: The Blitz – national museums close again

Chapter 5 As war begins: from propaganda to recognition

1938–1939: Hopes for a Royal Commission

1939: Resistance to propaganda

1940–1941: Exhibits poorly conceived: propaganda withdrawn

1942: From propaganda to war artists

Visitors play an active part

Museums respond to wartime visitors’ needs


PART III: 1941–1944: During wartime

Chapter 6 State support: the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA)

1940: A significant year for culture

The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) created

1940: The establishment of CEMA

1942: The Treasury funds CEMA – Keynes as Chair

Museum collaboration, alliances and federations

Funded for success

Chapter 7 Temples to the arts

CEMA and the arts in wartime

Music in museums

CEMA and art exhibitions in provincial galleries

The National Gallery’s support for provincial museums

Public enthusiasm for new services exceeds expectations

Chapter 8 Planning for peacetime

1940–1945: Museums plan for reconstruction

The Museums Association’s 1942 Memorandum on reconstruction

The Museums Association loses momentum

1944 Education Act: no provision for cultural initiatives


PART IV: Reflections on wartime practice

Chapter 9 Community engagement, education and exhibitions

Education services develop

Education services in wartime

1939: Adult education to boost conscript morale

Would innovations survive?

Exhibitions: a wartime service

Cultural centres, citizenship and demobilisation

Disruption, ideas and new meanings

Focus on public service

Chapter 10 Audiences in wartime

Recorded visitor figures

Contemporary evidence

Why more visitors

Who were the visitors?

Reasons for visiting: popularity of culture

Changing perceptions of the museum: two wartime films

The new audience centred approach in wartime regional museums

Tables – visitor attendance numbers

Chapter 11 Memory and identity

Memory in the museum space

Memories of buildings and experience

Memories of objects

Memories based on an unexpected use of the museum

Memories of shared experience

Museums and those who did not visit

New perceptions of museums and objects

Chapter 12 Museum staff and the war

Museum staff in wartime

Women working in wartime museums

After the war

The long term cost to the museum profession

Professionals and amateurs

Professionalism – the unexpected consequences


PART V: 1944–1949 The aftermath of the war

Chapter 13 A national museum service: the final bid

1945: A final bid for a National Museum Service

Behind the scenes in government

1945: Rejection again for the Museums Association

1945: The Museums Association resumes negotiations

Museums Association intransigence loses last chance for a national service

Chapter 14 The post-war decades: museums in the aftermath of war

Austerity, continuity and change

Success and failure after the war

1945–1950s: The decline of temporary exhibitions

Museums and the Arts Council

Changing approaches in museums

The Museums Association: a diminished organisation

For museums: the consequences of the war


PART VI: 1950–1964 From austerity to reconstruction

Chapter 15 Towards a regional service

Low priority and government neglect in peacetime

The Museums Association in the 1950s

1955–1956: Museums’ joint proposal with Standing Commission and Arts Council

1956: The government reception of Museums Association’s 1955 proposals

From 1956: The Museums Association turns towards a regional service

The Standing Commission promotes regional support

Late 1950s: Public pressure for museum renewal

1959–1960: Attention turns to culture

1960–1963: The Rosse Report

Regional organisation: from federations to Area Museum Councils

The lessons of wartime disregarded

Political oblivion for museums’ wartime success


Chapter 16 Conclusions: museums forget their past

Museums ignore their past

Why has wartime success been overlooked?

Reasons for wartime success

Pre-war ideas implemented in innovative services

Nationwide collaboration, the National Gallery

Challenges to museum authority

The costs of war

Peacetime return to traditional collections concerns

The past is intrinsic to museums

After the war: the complexities of peacetime

Appendix: Primary sources

List of references

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Catherine Pearson, Author, Independent Historian and Scholar, UK. She is the editor of the journals of museum curator, E.J. Rudsdale, 1920-1951.

Suzanne Keene, Editor, Reader Emeritus at University College London. She has a number of published books on museum collections, most recently co-authoring Museums and Silent Objects: Designing Effective Exhibitions.