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Sunday 8 May 2011

The Bomb-Proof Museum

Carved out of the solid rock eighty feet below the Wiltshire countryside, there is a huge underground chamber bearing an inscription (reproduced on the left) written in the cuneiform script of the ancient Assyrian civilization. The inscription, when translated into modern English, reads: "In the year 1942 AD, the sixth year of George, king of all lands, in that year everything precious, the works of all the craftsmen which from palaces and temples were sent out, in order that by fire or attack by an evil enemy they might not be lost, into this cave under the earth a place of security, an abode of peace, we brought them down and set them."

An ancient cuneiform inscription dated 1942 AD? Surely there must be a rational explanation... and there is. The inscription was written by a Mr C. J. Gadd, who at the time was the British Museum's keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian statuary. And the reason for the inscription is simple. Between 1942 and 1945, this underground chamber -- about as safe a place from German bombs as you could find -- was the British Museum.

The museum chamber -- all 2150 square metres of it -- is part of an extensive network of underground workings at Westwood Quarry, just south of Bradford-on-Avon, appropriated by the Government during the Second World War. As well as all the great treasures of the British Museum, it was also used to store books and manuscripts from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and paintings from the Kenwood Collection and the National Portrait Gallery. A large part of the Victoria & Albert Museum, initially evacuated to Montacute House in Somerset, ended up at the quarry as well, when it was realized that Montacute was just six miles from a major strategic bombing target -- the Westland aircraft factory in Yeovil!

It wasn't just ancient treasures that were stored in the Westwood "museum". Rubbing shoulders with Greek and Egyptian antiquities, artworks by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, was the Wright Brothers' first aircraft.. which was only forty years old at the time! At the outbreak of the war it had been on special loan to the Science Museum in South Kensington from Orville Wright himself!

Conspiracy theorists will be pleased to hear that the Westwood site is just a few miles away from Corsham and Rudloe Manor, and part of the same network of tunnels and bunkers that gave rise to so many Cold War myths and legends. Unlike the Cold War bunkers, however, the museum workers weren't expected to spend their entire lives underground... although during the winter months they never saw daylight. For this reason they had to undertake an hour's UV treatment each week -- as depicted in this rather sinister-looking photograph!

[Source of information and pictures: Saving Britain's Art Treasures by N. J. McCamley, 2003.]

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