The First and Second World Wars turned the Natural History Museum into a hive of activity, giving historians rich and unique perspective on wartime Britain. The Museum's invaluable contribution can be seen in the rare collection of manuscripts, photographs and archives held by the Library and Archives.
As war raged across mainland Europe, Museum experts provided allied forces with crucial information. The Museum became a sanctuary for convalescing soldiers and educated the public on important war-related matters, while also ensuring the safety of its own natural history collections.
First World War
During the First World War the Museum's contribution included supplying scientific expertise, furthering public education, providing civil services and, in the case of individual staff members, undertaking military service.
The Museum and its experts were called on to assist armies in unfamiliar conditions overseas. The Entomology Department provided critical information about the problems mites and ticks could cause for humans, army horses and food supplies. The Zoology Department reported on the use of crustaceans in determining the ages of shipwrecks, examined sunken submarines, and reported on the impact of flatworms and snails on disease, food and water supplies, and commerce. The Botany Department advised on suitable food for humans and horses in foreign climates, and the Geology Department provided essential analytical guidance on the geology of the Italian and Belgian fronts.
The Museum also established a wartime farm that grew potatoes, artichokes, cauliflowers and green crops for troops in the area. It put on special exhibitions, which advised the public how to develop wartime allotments, deal with insect infestation, and avoid killing carrier pigeons by learning how to differentiate them from the feral type.
Second World War
During the Second World War the Museum supplied government and military departments with expertise on the obstacles posed by the natural world. For example, the Ministry of Supply's Assistant Director of Explosives wrote to the Museum's Zoology Department asking how to discourage field mice from 'nibbling the lengths of detonating fuze (sic) in open fields'. The Museum also received enquiries regarding explosives, carbon monoxide poisoning, mustard gas and types of rock resistant to landmine detectors.
Between September 1940 and April 1941, the Museum was severely damaged in several air raids. On the morning of 9 September 1940, two incendiaries and an oil bomb went through the roof of the east wing and into the Botany Department. Along with structural damage, many specimens and books were harmed or destroyed.
A large proportion of the Museum's exhibits had been evacuated to country houses before the war, although some sandbagged skeletons remained in their display cases. Removing the exhibits was a huge operation, with plans drawn up from as early as 1933. Over this period, the Museum's chief librarian established a serial publication called Tin Hat, to which Museum staff were encouraged to anonymously submit humorous articles as a means of keeping up morale.
The Library and Archives also holds archival records of Museum Members who were involved in active and volunteer service. The documents outline the role they played within the Museum and provide brief biographies of their lives.
A war diary, documenting the chronology of the Museum from August 1939 to April 1945, also features in the collections.
Composition: Books, photographs, archives, manuscripts
Focus: First World War, Second World War