Museum at War: a snapshot of the NHM during WWI | Library and Archives

The centenary of the First World War (1914-1918) has generated a great deal of new research. It has brought to the fore stories that have enabled us to learn a lot more about our country’s history, many of which had, until this point, been widely unknown.

Marking this four year period has focused the minds not only of individuals but also businesses and organisations, encouraging us to take a closer look at the affect the Great War had on ordinary lives. The Natural History Museum is one such organisation, and October saw the publication of A Museum at War: Snapshots of life at the Natural History Museum during World War One written by Karolyn Shindler (Library and Archives Associate).

Museum Members and readers of our Evolve Magazine will be familiar with Karolyn’s work, as articles by her have featured in each edition for more than five years. It is her chronological WWI series that has culminated in this new publication.

The war memorial plaque inside the entrance to the Museum, honouring employees of the British Museum Bloomsbury and Natural History Museum.

As visitors to the Museum, the only visible connection to WWI is the smart, highly polished, wooden memorial plaque, just inside the main entrance to Hintze Hall. This lists all of those staff who served in this conflict (in addition to WWII), including those who lost their lives. Thirteen men did not return. In total there are 70 individuals named as part of the Natural History Museum staff who served during World War One.

Using sources in our collections, Karolyn’s book and family history online resources, I have ensured each of these thirteen individuals have been remembered on the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project (

This website was set up to record the life stories of as many of the seven million plus men and women who represented Britain and the Commonwealth as possible. As a family historian myself, I have added members of my own family and those I have come across during my research. There is a push to try to remember as many as possible before the 11 November 2018 anniversary. At the time of writing 471,766 lives have been registered.

Attendant John Gabriel (1889-1916) was hit and instantly killed by an aerial torpedo in the trenches at Neuville-St. Vaast, France.

Karolyn’s book happens to be a chronological record of the NHM during this period, but of course it is also a reflection of how ‘normal life’ in Britain was hugely affected. For many, life was put on hold for four long years (for some it would be a lifetime) and everyday lives were altered, disrupted or permanently scarred. We learn the new roles the conflict carved out for many on home soil, and the very practical implications that losing many of your staff to military service causes to the work of any organisation.

There are unexpected stories including the Museum’s role in propaganda, and odd tales such as panicked sightings of downed German Zepplins, which turn out to be dead whales. Intriguingly we learn the role Museum staff played in public awareness campaigns, producing displays and publications on subjects such as house flies and food hygiene at home, and applying their scientific know-how to practical problems in the field of conflict.

Charles Hill (1889-1918)
Attendant Charles Hill (1889-1918) was sent back from the front after being wounded near Ypres, recovered and was sadly killed in an training accident on Wimbledon Common.

We are also reminded of the very human cost of the conflict, as Museum Trustee’s minutes record colleagues leaving for service, being reported as severely wounded, missing in action or killed. It is a reminder that an organisation such as the Museum was an extended family, and as a result, the losses were felt just as keenly.

Karolyn’s research widens our understanding of the affects and ramifications that the war had on home soil. This includes the fear of aerial attack, which many of us are guilty of assuming was particular to the Second World War.

The Museum Archives were used extensively during the research for this book. It is a interesting example of the various types of material and sources available from a business archive and the information that can be gleaned.

A Museum at War is a publication that will be of interest to many different people, clearly those interested in the history of the Museum and London, but also family and social historians.

A Museum at War by Karolyn Shindler (ISBN: 9780565094614) is available to buy now, including from the Museum shop.

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