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

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.

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