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Packing up the Nation
By Caroline Shenton  (11th January  2022)

Storing war paintings.jpg

While the Nazis were in power in Germany, they plundered cultural property from their own country and from every territory they occupied, targeting Jewish property in particular. This was conducted in a systematic manner with organizations specifically created to determine which public and private collections were most valuable to the Nazi Regime. Some of the objects were earmarked for Hitler's never realized Führermuseum, some objects went to other high-ranking officials such as Hermann Göring, while other objects were traded to fund Nazi activities.

As Hitler prepared to invade Poland during the sweltering summer of 1939, men and women from  London's museums, galleries and archives formulated ingenious plans to send the nation's highest prized objects to safety. The story was brilliantly told by Dr Caroline Shenton during a Zoom talk to members.

Having published a book on the topic last autumn, the speaker was well versed in the details of this fascinating story. Using stately homes, underground tunnels, slate mines, castles, prisons, stone quarries and even their own homes, a dedicated bunch of unlikely misfits packed up the nation's greatest treasures and, in a race against time, dispatched them throughout the country on a series of top-secret wartime adventures. The story highlights a moment from our history when an unlikely coalition of mild-mannered civil servants, academic social oddballs and metropolitan aesthetes became the front line in the heritage war against Nazi Germany.

Caroline Shenton shared the interwoven lives of the ordinary people who worked at the institutions who planned the evacuations and, in the best British tradition, kept calm and carried on in the most extraordinary of circumstances in their efforts to save the Nation's historic identity. The British Museum used a large slate mine in Snowdonia, building special air-conditioned sheds deep underground, although initially they also used a disused section of London underground tunnels at Aldwych. As well as pieces by Michelangelo and Raphael, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth also stored a wealth of priceless historic literature from the British Library for safekeeping such as the Trafalgar Memorandum of Nelson, Scott’s Antarctic Journals, the Magna Carta and the Saxon Chronicles. Staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum sent some of their collections away to Shepton Mallett in Somerset, whilst material from the Public Record Office was send to Haddon Hall and Belvoir Castle in the Midlands. The Tate Gallery sent collections to two large private houses in Lancashire and another in Malvern. Material from the Royal Collections was scattered about London, the Crown Jewels were secreted in the vaults at Windsor Castle as were some of the large canvas paintings. The unique ceiling from the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall was more of an issue due to its size, but the threat of bombing was so great it was sawn into twenty-one panels and taken out through the windows to be stored at Hall Barn in Beaconsfield. The Wallace Collection also sent material there. Parliamentary archives were moved to Oxford.

It was an interesting presentation being about a short period of relatively recent history rather than any particular artist. The people who took centre stage were the Museum Directors, Curators and other staff who provided the essential care of the evacuated works so that much of it was returned at the end of the war without damage.

Tony Cross

A member of The Arts Society
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