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Under the Dome: The Imperial War Museum

The large green dome above the main façade of the Imperial War Museum has been one of the most distinctive features of the building since it was added to the Bethlem Royal Hospital during improvements completed in 1846. As part of Open House London last weekend, we ventured inside to see how much of the nineteenth-century Bethlem remained.

Now the dome is no longer the Imperial War Museum’s reading room, opportunities to visit are rare. However, 130 lucky visitors (and us!) made it up the three flights of stairs into the dome last Saturday, to hear about the history of the building and the Imperial War Museum from their Archive team, and browse some nineteenth century casebooks: records of patients who may well have attended services when the dome formed the Hospital’s chapel.

Evidence of the room’s former use (carefully restored following an arson attack in the 1960s) still remains, including the Ten Commandments displayed on the wall, above where the altar would have stood, and the gallery, which used to house the choir. The Hospital Chaplain was an important part of daily life at Bethlem; as well as providing religious and spiritual counsel for patients (and staff), he was also heavily involved in the programme of entertainments. Rev. Edward Geoffrey O'Donoghue (Chaplain from 1892 – 1930) organised fortnightly “Working Parties,” in which female patients were “encouraged to forget their own maladies in working for others.” He also wrote a history of the hospital, and gave regular lectures to staff and patients on the topic: over 700 lantern slides he used to illustrate his talks remain in the Archives, and can be accessed online. Why not go to our catalogue to see how much you can discover about life under the Dome?