Conference: Museums, Collections and Conflict

by Dr Kate Hill

In July I was part of the organising group (the Museums and Galleries History Group, including Dr Sarah Longair) for a conference on Museums, Collections and Conflict held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. We had decided on this theme because, 2018 being the centenary of the end of the First World War, museums were at the time (and at least until November of this year) playing an enormous part in the public commemoration of this conflict – but what, we wondered, had the relationship been between museums, war and collecting in the past? Museums have been both created by and threatened by war, and have played a huge role in helping societies understand and remember war, yet very few aspects of this complex relationship have been examined. One key aim of the conference was to open up all the ways in which museums and war have been linked. Our programme certainly achieved that, with an enormous diversity of presentations, including a keynote, fifteen papers and ten posters, making it pretty hard to summarise all that was discussed. Instead, what I’d like to do is focus on some of the more interesting themes that emerged from the two days of the conference.

Museum objects under threat?

Firstly, there was an unexpected focus on museum evacuations in preparation for and during war. The key museum here turned out, maybe unsurprisingly, to be the Louvre in Paris which had lots of opportunities to practice and refine evacuation of its objects, including the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and the First World War in 1914-18. By the time the Second World War was imminent, planning for the Louvre’s evacuation had been in progress for seven years, and as Zoé Vannier told us, this allowed an exceptionally fast movement of objects – in just over a week up to the outbreak of war, 75% of the Louvre’s objects were removed to safe locations. The significance of such evacuations became clearer in Anna Tulliach’s paper which showed that they accelerated the development of museum techniques such as storage and conservation – objects which had been stowed hastily in a damp cellar in Bologna or quickly loaded on to lorries for transportation over poor-quality roads through combat zones needed considerable work after the war. For museums, then, as for surgery, the damage caused by war paradoxically led to the development of new areas of expertise and specialism.

Workmen sandbagging immovable objects for protection against bombing raids, during the Wartime removal of objects, V&A Museum; 1939 – 45.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Museum messages during war – propaganda or not?

Not all museums, though, evacuated their objects and closed, even in combat areas or conquered territories. What role did museums play during war, and who determined this? Museums were thought to need to contribute to the war effort in some way but, as several papers demonstrated, very rarely did they put forth anything that could be reductively described as ‘propaganda’. Catherine Pearson’s paper interestingly suggested that in the UK during the Second World War, with little money for museums and with male curators often called up allowing a significant opening for women in museum work, there was rather a sense of experiment and innovation, of seeing what could be done on the cheap, rather than ‘propaganda’. This was also because the public did not tend to visit or enjoy propagandistic exhibitions. Fascinating papers on the state art collections in Dresden, and on the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam under Nazi regimes showed a similar story. While there was definitely an intention that exhibitions align with Nazi ideas on art and national heritage, such an intention was hard to implement, as ‘avant garde’ works slipped in and art proved hard to police – curators tried to avoid engaging with ideology at all. For Evelien Scheltinga who spoke on the Stedelijk Museum, curators were neither as propagandistic in favour of Nazism nor as committed to resisting Nazism as has previously been suggested. It seems that in the chaotic and resource-poor conditions of war, museums were an under-determined space.


Collecting and remembering war is something with enormous significance today, as a paper on the Imperial War Museum’s collecting policy on the Afghanistan war showed. Yet collecting war has historically meant collecting objects of what we might call the ultimate ‘toxic’ masculinity. The history of the soldier-collector was reflected in Geoff Quilley’s keynote which drew our attention to the vast collections amassed during conflicts by the East India Company. Papers on collecting during the Napoleonic Wars in Egypt, and during the wars between the British and the Mahdists in the Sudan in the late nineteenth century, both showed how war collections tended to express power and victory in a visceral way – with objects taken from dead bodies, and approvingly referred to as ‘spoils’; but this was uneasily contained in a vision of such masculinity as honourable not thuggish. Quintin Colville’s paper on medals showed how some of the most iconic war objects which are held by most military museums are closely bound up with a highly valorous model of masculinity and are very hard to display without seeming to endorse such a view. Medals are, Colville said, ‘objects that need help’. But how can contemporary conflicts be collected without ending up with more of these problematic objects? Can you collect the ‘other side’ without exploiting their defeat, and if you don’t collect that losing side might the collection not seem to ignore the total cost of war? The IWM’s collecting expedition to Afghanistan was an attempt to try and address these issues by looking for stories that allow all people in a conflict to tell their own stories.

Tipu’s Tiger, now in the V&A but formerly in the India Museum of the East India Company, exemplifies the role of conflict in India in forming British museum collections
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The difficulty of being a ‘war’ museum.

A linked theme was the changing understanding of what a war or military museum actually is. Museums of war or of the military are fairly recent – the earliest discussed at the conference was the Royal United Services Institute Museum which was founded in 1831 but no longer exists, its collections having been given to other museums and sold off in 1962; while the earliest museum of war discussed was the Imperial War Museum, though earlier forerunners in regimental collections kept in mess halls were clearly significant. Despite their relatively recent nature, though, they appear to be marked by a pervasive and increasing uneasiness about being war museums, as if such a thing expresses a general approval of war and belligerence. The RUSI Museum was never really clear about its purpose and included a range of fairly irrelevant exhibits, while the IWM insists that it is ‘a social history museum, not a military history museum’. An interesting aspect of this is its attitude to what Kasia Tomasiewicz described as big machines such as tanks and guns, which promote a spectacular and awe-inspiring vision of war, versus ‘peopled’ galleries which stress the human stories involved. Displays depending heavily on the use of mannequins, such as the Trench Experience, were a feature of 1980s and 1990s approaches and are now being removed by curators who think they’re corny – but this causes outcries from the general public who have a huge affection for such exhibits.

Overall, then, it became clear that war and conflict have been absolutely central to museums’ development, rather than something which interrupts normal museum development. This is not to say that war is not disruptive to museums; it is, but that disruption in itself tells us more about how museums as organisations work. And it is important to realise how central war has been to the creation and growth of museums – from battlefield collecting to the foundation of museums to commemorate war, conflict has driven museums. Museums have also been central to the shaping of our understandings of war, and by being honest about the tropes and meanings lurking among existing collections, buildings and displays, we can make sure that museums can ask new questions and tell new stories about those wars.

Skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon’s horse. Owned by Royal United Services Institute museum then transferred to National Army Museum in 1960s
© National Army Museum