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Cold War Flashback: Great Britain’s Plan to Save Its Art from Nuclear War

(Image via Wikimapia)
An underground tunnel at Rhydymwyn Valley Works, where Great Britain considered storing art in the early 1980s (image via Wikimapia)

The threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union reached new heights in the early 1980s, prompting authorities in Great Britain to devise a plan for saving its greatest art treasures, Bloomberg reports. Declassified documents released by the National Archives in London on December 29 show internal discord and uncertainty over where all those Turners and Gainsboroughs should go — and whether the rescue effort was worth it if no one might be around to see the rescued art.

The effort seemed doomed from the start. The Department for Education and Sciences (DES) first sent a plea to the Ministry of Defense (MoD) asking for a safe place to store the nation’s art. On receiving it, an MoD official sent a memo to the Home Office ridiculing the request. “If DES is asking for a safe hole guaranteed to survive nuclear war, they cannot be thinking straight,” the official wrote. “I cannot see what advantage the anonymous director of a national institution imagines he will derive from having a deposit readily accessible from London…”

Yet it wasn’t the first time that Great Britain had drawn up a strategy for safeguarding art against nuclear war. An earlier plan known as “Operation Methodical” had been developed during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At that time, authorities hoped to save paintings including Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” Monet’s “Waterlilies,” Constable’s “The Hay Wayne,” and the 14th-century “Wilton Diptych” by storing them primarily at the Manod slate quarry in north Wales. The quarry had been used during World War II by the National Gallery, though it had since been reopened as a mine, making it impossible to use for protecting art by the 1980s.

Authorities turned their attention instead to tunnels at Rhydymwyn Valley Works in North Wales, where mustard gas shells had been housed during WWII. The Property Services Agency suggested two of the 10 underground chambers there be structurally fitted to house the art, though it wanted assurances that the rooms could withstand explosions.

According to the BBC, the Welsh Office was also asked whether it had any of its own artworks to store in the tunnels, but it declined. “Present thought is that, although we do have a few valuable items, we are not really to be compared with the great national ‘treasure houses’ and it would make more sense for our local custodians to crate their most important possessions and put them in the most suitable sub-basement accommodation,” an official wrote.

It’s not yet clear whether a plan was ever fully established. A later account revealed the effort was “in disarray — to say the least… Nobody really knew what would be moved, from where, by whom, to where or when… Indeed there were grave doubts, not only about feasibility, but about the policy of using scarce resources to protect ‘things’ rather than people.”

The potential effects of nuclear war on cultural heritage have long been a cause of international concern. One of the US’s greatest small art collections, the Clark Art Institute, was established in rural Williamstown, Massachusetts, because its founders feared what would happen to their art collection if an atom bomb hit New York City.

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