The Sheffield Blitz: Weston Park Museum

Curator of Natural Sciences Alistair McLean talks about the damage to Weston Park during the Sheffield Blitz and the impact to the city’s scientific and cultural heritage:

2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz; a major air offensive against the city, designed to break the heart of the British steel industry and the people that worked them. The attacks on the 12th and 15th of December were devastating. Over 600 people lost their lives, with many more injured. With this in mind, what happened to Weston Park Museum was pretty insignificant – no loss of life was reported. Nevertheless, the blitz had a major impact on the City’s scientific and cultural heritage which can still be felt to this day.

The museum was hit at 22:55 on the 12th of December. Over the years, there have been several accounts of what happened. Some reports suggest that the museum received a direct hit from an incendiary bomb through the glass roof of the Mappin Art Gallery. Other reports say that it was a parachute mine that landed around 100 yards from the museum. The confusion may stem from the lack of public information given at the time, for obvious reasons. Most contemporary newspaper articles underplayed the amount of damage, focussing instead on the good news, such as the minor miracle that the live fish displayed in the museum survived the bombing.

Damage to the case containing the mummy, December 1940The confidential report of the damage to the City authorities was more pragmatic. This states that the museum was hit by the blast from an high explosive bomb that impacted on Mushroom Lane, around 13 yards from the NW corner of the building. The size of crater, given as 14 yards across, is consistent with a German 50kg bomb. This was the most common bomb dropped on the evening of the 12th and one of the smallest devices used. The curator in 1940 reported that had the bomb been a few yards South or East, there would have been nothing left of the museum at all.

The damage to the building was extensive. Half of the galleries in the Mappin, including the magnificent Central gallery, were damaged beyond repair and were ultimately demolished in 1941. Only the two front galleries and the vestibule that connected the Mappin to the museum corridor survived. On the museum side of the building, the 4 long galleries were damaged, but were considered salvageable.

Inside the building, most of the damage to furniture and collections was a result of a huge shockwave, which travelled up the main corridor of the museum. Almost every pane of glass in the building was shattered. The shockwave was followed by a powerful suction, as air rushed back towards the blast. Eyewitness accounts from inside the building tell how objects moved along the corridor, apparently on their own, giving the impression that the collections had come to life. Fragile objects exploded, paintings were blown from their frames and artefacts were dislodged from their shelves. Fortunately, the curator had removed many of the most precious items from display, and stored them in metal containers at the outbreak of war. They at least were protected.

After the bomb, museum staff spent months sweeping up the debris and trying to keep fragmented objects together for later repair. Considering that the museum had only undergone a major rebuilding programme 3 years earlier, they must have been heart broken. The museum reopened some of its galleries in September 1941, mostly at the insistence of J G Graves, who had funded much of the rebuilding work in 1937. The Mappin side of the building was made safe, but remained partially derelict until 1965, when a new extension was built.

The new extension and the renovations in 2006 repaired most of the visible damage to the area. The only physical evidence that remains of the bombing today are visible repairs to the park walls on both sides of Mushroom Lane and the objects in the collection that still bear the scars.

Explore what happened to the museum during the Sheffield Blitz through some of the objects damaged by visiting our current display, The Sheffield Blitz: Weston Park Museum until 31 January 2016.

 

Images:
Top:  Curators store objects in the catacombs of the museum, September 1939. Image © Museums Sheffield
Bottom: Damage to the case containing the mummy, December 1940. Image © Museums Sheffield

Dec 04 2015

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