As well as being the anniversary of the founding of the Imperial War Museum, today is also an important anniversary for us. Twenty years ago today, the then Director General of the Imperial War Museum, Dr Alan Borg, wrote a letter responding to an article in The Times. The article had pointed out that church sculpture was at risk from vandalism and other threats. The chairman of the Friends of Brompton Cemetery had then suggested the establishment of a national inventory of funerary monuments.
Dr Borg, responded with the following letter, published on 5 March 1988.
Sir, Mr Bendixson’s plea (February 24) for a national inventory of funerary monuments deserves wide support but there is, I suggest, an even more urgent national requirement for an Inventory of war memorials. Every town and virtually every village in the country has at least one memorial to those who have died in the conflicts of the 20th century.
These memorials were erected by the state by local communities, by companies, by schools, by individuals and by other bodies. They are in the care of a similarly diverse range of authorities. Most are well looked after but many are suffering from the ravages of time and pollution, with inscriptions becoming illegible and details of sculpture destroyed.
Somewhat surprisingly, there is no inventory of war memorials and hence no way of telling how many require restoration or are in danger of destruction. Various bodies hold partial records, notably the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, and this museum. However, such records relate to only a small percentage of extant memorials and I have long believed that a national database should be established.
The task is finite, manageable and (comparatively) inexpensive; unfortunately, however, it is no one’s responsibility and hence virtually impossible to fund from established sources. Yet if we, after more than 40 years of peace in Europe, allow even a part of our heritage of war memorials to be lost through neglect, we shall rightly be censured by future generations.
Director, Imperial War Museum,
Dr Borg’s letter clearly struck a chord with The Times readers, for a dozen responses were published over the next two months. Among them was one from Derek Boorman, later to become the author of books about war memorials, and another pointing out that there are war memorials such as hospitals that are not sculpted.
Following this enthusiastic response, a meeting of interested organisations was held in June and the UKNIWM was founded as a joint project by the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England. The following year, 1989, the project appointed its first Project Coordinator and work began to record every war memorial in the UK.
Dr Alan Borg recently retired as chairman of the UKNIWM charitable company. He must surely be proud of what his letter to The Times twenty years ago initiated.