How Museums Protect Art During Times of Conflict

In times of armed conflict, art institutions have managed to protect their artworks from destruction.

(Cover Photo Source: Roger Viollet)

Museums around the world house extremely significant pieces of art from different societies, and cultures. During wartime, destroying these pieces often symbolized a direct attack on that group of people. Therefore, museums naturally assumed the responsibility of protecting pieces when armed conflict takes place. Art institutions have found methods to preserve these artifacts in unique ways. Early successful strategies implemented by The National Gallery in Great Britain, and The Louvre in France during conflict can show how art institutions have played a role in the development of art preservation today.

Beginning as early as 1938, a year before the declaration of World War II, the director of the Louvre Museum Jacques Jaujard began to organize the evacuation of over 4,000 artworks into the French countryside. The evacuation would be carried out entirely in secret, with the works’ locations being kept in a tight circle of local museums and other collaborators.

Art of all mediums were rolled up, deconstructed, or taken as is by truck to the Château of Chambord, where they were dispersed to different locations. In an attempt to evade both the destruction from Nazi Germany’s occupation and looters, artworks were rotated between different locations that were not explicitly disclosed until they were finally returned to the Louvre fully intact after the war had ended. 

The National Gallery, also in 1938, under museum director Kenneth Clark, finalized plans to begin evacuating pieces from the gallery. In anticipation of the London bombings in 1939, a complete evacuation took place, which led to artworks being transported, primarily by rail, to various locations in Wales. As the war continued, a more permanent solution was sought in order to keep the collections within Britain’s borders.

The paintings were then moved into the discontinued slate mine Manod Quarry, where brick infrastructure was built to maintain the conditions of the artworks; this move led to the complete collection being underground by 1941. Throughout the bombings the National Gallery was hit nine times in critical locations where artworks were previously displayed.

The National Gallery acted as a pillar of entertainment within the community until artworks began gradually returning in May 1945. Throughout the war, the gallery continued to present temporary exhibitions and activities to visitors such as ‘Picture of the Month’. Parts of the gallery that were not affected immediately following the end of the war were reopened gradually while the rest remained under construction due to damages from the bombings. 

While these collections had managed to survive, many other museums in Europe did not have the opportunity to lead evacuations before cultural sites and institutions had been destroyed. Art preservation, as a result of the destruction during World War II, gained more attention globally. International organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), founded in 1945, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), founded in 1946, were established to provide preservation and conservation resources to countries in need.

The contributions of art institutions such as the National Gallery and The Louvre, which were relatively successful at preserving artworks during World War II, act as both a framework and stepping stone for how museums and international organizations would collaborate to ensure art and cultural heritage is preserved worldwide today.

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