Thursday, 4 February 2016




Most of us first year MMSt students are currently enrolled in the mandatory collections management course. What I have learned so far is that a) I am not cut out to be a collections manager and b) a LOT can go wrong with your collections.

Part of the course is about emergency preparedness, which is terrifying to contemplate. Which of your potentially priceless works of art do you save? It’s a veritable Sophie’s choice.

Michael, from The Office, discussing his most recent 'Sophie's choice'. Source.

One of the most dramatic examples of an emergency situation was during the Second World War, when museums in major European cities had to evacuate their contents to prevent them from being destroyed by bombs. In London, the National Gallery’s collection was evacuated to a slate quarry in North Wales. Ironically, the constant temperature and humidity of the quarry proved to be perfect for the collection, and in fact proved the importance of regulating these factors in the storage of artefacts.

Damage to the NHM's Shell Gallery, c. 1940. Source.

The Natural History Museum in London, meanwhile, was evacuating its collections to various country houses outside of London. This presented a few challenges, since staff had to keep track of what was going where (can you imagine being in charge of this?!). As you might imagine, some owners of the requisitioned country houses were less than happy to have collections, and museum staff, moved into their houses. Fawley Court and its owner, Major Mackenzie, received over 300 cabinets from the entomology department. Unsurprisingly, they were less than pleased about this, and arguments between Mackenzie and the museum staff member deteriorated into questions of how to split the heating bill.

Thanks to this evacuation, most of the NHM's collection survived the war intact. Had it remained in London, many objects would have been destroyed. Between September 1940 and April 1941, the Natural History Museum was hit by oil and incendiary bombs in several air raids.

The situation was even more dire in Continental Europe, where many objects and pieces of art never made it back to their museums after being looted by the Nazis or the Russians, or caught in bombing raids by either side.

The Louvre's empty galleries during WWII. Source.

I hope that, for those of you who are headed into collections management, your careers are never as eventful as those of the museum staff who lived through World War Two.

For a great watch related to this topic, check out The Rape of Europa, which is basically the PBS documentary version of Monuments Men.


  1. Props for throwing Michael Scott into a blog post. Always a win.