One of many London buildings not usually accessible to the public is the Victorian Bethlem Hospital at the Imperial War Museum. Opened in 1815, when Bethlem was moved from its crumbling former premises at Moorfields, the Hospital was located on this site until 1930, when it moved to its present location in Beckenham. Although the conversion of the building to the Imperial War Museum, established in 1920 and opened on this site in 1936, as well as extensive bomb damage in the Second World War (a total of 41 incidents) means that much of the building’s original fabric has been altered, the facade is still distinctly recognisable, while the pathways and walls in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, formerly the Hospital grounds and airing courts, still follow the plans of nineteenth century Bethlem.
Most of the former Hospital rooms now form the “behind the scenes” areas of the Imperial War Museum, with the public galleries located in what was originally a central garden. Some of the most distinctive Hospital locations, however, will be open for visitors on Saturday 18 September only, as part of Open House London weekend: the Dome and the Boardroom. Smirke’s Dome, added to the Hospital during improvements carried out between 1838 and 1846, was one of the most distinctive features of the nineteenth century building: the patient-edited Hospital magazine, begun in 1889, was titled Under the Dome. The Dome contained Bethlem’s chapel, pictured below. More recently, after restoration following an arson attack in 1968, the Dome housed the Imperial War Museum’s Reading Room (from May 2010, this was moved to the new Explore History Centre). The guided tour, led by archivists from the Imperial War Museum, will also take in the Boardroom - the only room in the building still used for its original purposes, having formerly served as Boardroom for Bethlem’s Governors. The room currently contains a collection of artworks by William Orpen.
Tours take place on the hour from 11am, with the last tour starting at 5pm. Staff from the Imperial War Museum and Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum will be on hand to provide information and answer questions, and information from the Bethlem Archives will be on display in the Dome. Like all Open House events, tours will be free of charge. Spaces are limited (max 15 per tour), so please book in advance to avoid disappointment. Booking will open on Saturday 11 September at the Imperial War Museum Information Desk, in the ground floor display area.
To find out more about Open House London and the Imperial War Museum visit:
To explore nineteenth century Bethlem online, visit our interactive guide: