November 12, 2014

Imperial War Museum Library threatened with closure



It’s been a bad time for IWM to make a bad announcement.

Yesterday Britain marked one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War, and at 11am a two minute silence was held in honour of Remembrance Day. Poppies, which are worn every year to commemorate those who died in fighting, have featured this year on a much grander, and more sombre scale to observe the centenary of the First World War. Huge poppies decorate the walls of Kings Cross Station, but nothing can quite compare to installation at the Tower of London where handmade ceramic poppies stream out of the tower and flood the ground, with each one representing a British and Commonwealth soldier who died during the war.

It’s been a bad time for the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to announce that it is currently deciding whether to close its library, which contains a collection of about 600,000 significant and unique war items, and get rid of about 80 jobs. In fact, there couldn’t be a worse time.

The library’s collections, by its own definition, “cover all aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century conflict involving Britain, the Commonwealth and other former empire countries”, making it a invaluable memory-bank and resource which includes everything from “film and oral history to works of art, large objects, and personal letters and diaries”. It is open to the public and is regularly used for academic purposes.

What’s more, the potential closure comes after the grand opening of the IWM after a major refurbishment. Removing a part of the museum seems at odds with a plan to improve the site and its offerings.

Writing on the TLS blog, Thea Lenarduzzi gets to the heart of the problem: the IWM is facing a £4 million cut in its annual funding, which has been sanctioned by the same coalition government that has spent the past year publically commemorating the centenary, and upholding the importance of remembrance. She writes:

The centenary celebrations seem to have largely focused (for better or worse) on the poppies at the Tower, perhaps causing a distraction from developments elsewhere. Cameron announced that two sections of the display would remain until the end of the month before going on a national tour and ending, in 2018, with a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (“I think the right place for it to be”). His coalition government, meanwhile, has decided on a £4m cut to the annual funding of the same museum.

A petition to oppose the library’s closure has already been launched by the Prospect union, and now has over 4,000 signatures. Andy Bye, a negotiator for the union, who began the petition, told The Telegraph:

Closing IWM’s library is not a fitting way to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. IWM aspires to be a highly respected authority on its subject matter, but this will be impossible without a library…

The possibility of closures and cuts comes at a time when demand for all the museum’s services has never been higher: the IWM attracted 433,000 learners in 2013-14 and 256,000 children took part in its on and off-site educational programmes.

The museum says that the “consultation period for the organisational restructuring element of IWM’s change programme has now begun”. In plain English that probably means that crisis meetings are taking place, staff are afraid and are most likely having to re-interview for their jobs. Official announcements about planned changes will happen next year.




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.