Secret scheme devised to hide art treasures in Cuban missile crisis

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Secret plans were devised at the height of the Cuban missile crisis to safeguard the nation's most important art treasures from nuclear attack.

The documents, released by the Public Record Office, were drafted four days after President John F Kennedy placed a naval "quarantine" on Cuba in an attempt to force the Russians to withdraw its missiles from the island. Anthony Blunt, then the surveyor of the Queen's pictures, was among the gallery directors informed about the proposals to safeguard important works of art – though he had been detected as a Soviet spy by the time the plans were finalised two years later.

Planning continued even after the Russians stepped back and the nuclear flashpoint passed safely. But the declassified papers reveal how worried officials were of the potential impact on the public of hiding its art treasures. Fears were raised that removing the nation's Old Masters from the National Gallery might cause public alarm, leading to chaos as people realised they should flee London.

There was good reason, it was observed, to keep the treasures on public show "for national morale reasons".

Outlining the proposal in September 1963, Mary Loughnane, a Treasury official said: "Whether it will have the faintest chance of succeeding ... is another question; but this exercise has, from the very start, been based on the premise that there should be no removal of major masterpieces until other overt precautionary measures are being put in train."

Another paper notes that although the scheme would get the greatest works to safety, "a great many treasures of high value would have to be left behind to take their chance, which would obviously be slim".

Under the scheme, codenamed Operation Methodical, 11 large removal vans would take the cream of the collections from the National Gallery, the Tate, the Wallace Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, Public Record Office and the Royal Collection to Manod quarry in north Wales and to Westwood quarry at Corsham, Wiltshire. If it proved impossible to get that far, the works were to have been stored in Gloucestershire and Henley-on-Thames.

But the documents show the galleries fought over the respective merits of their collections and how many works they might be allowed to save. Sir Philip Hendy, who was director of the National Gallery, suggested that Manod quarry should be given over to his paintings, as happened during the Second World War. But the Treasury insisted the space would have to be shared.

The plans were approved by ministers in October 1963, a year after the issue was raised, but were not finalised until 1964. They were then sent to all the heads of the national collections, apart from Blunt, who had confessed to spying earlier that year.

Armed guards were to accompany the pantechnicons and museum officials would have "power of decision on emergency action as necessary" and be obliged to take "whatever steps are open to them to protect the works".

The Treasury planned for armed troops and museum staff to be on duty by 6pm with evacuation to begin at dawn to provide "the best chance of getting away undetected and unimpeded by traffic".

What plans there are now in the event of a nuclear threat are an official secret.