The original City Museum was established not far from its current site – on Old Portsmouth’s historic High Street. However, just as with many other places across the city, High Street suffered extensive bomb damage during World War II – and the museum was no exception.
When war was declared in 1939, the museum remained open as a place of recreation and education for local residents. In fact, the number of visitors to the museum actually increased shortly after the start of WW2! Many visitors were members of the armed forces, keen to see the history of the Old Portsmouth area.
In 1940 the most valuable objects from across the collections of all Portsmouth City Council’s museums were gathered at the High Street site before being packed and taken to a safe space. Gaps were filled with items from the secondary collection, so visitors would not be disappointed.
The visitor number increase wasn’t to last, and by the end of 1940 there was significantly fewer people heading through the museum doors. Then, on the night of 10-11 January 1941, a heavy raid on Portsmouth damaged the building’s exterior. The decision was made to close the museum.
Exactly two months later the museum was hit during another raid – although this time the damage was total. The museum was entirely destroyed, along with nearly all the items contained within. Though the museum had closed to visitors, many items from the secondary collection remained inside. However, museum staff got straight to work and salvaged all the items they could – many of which are still part of the museum collection today. These include personal items belonging to Jack the Painter and church paintings by the artist R. H. C. Ubsdell.
Following WW2, the museum moved to Cumberland House (which today is the home of Portsmouth Natural History Museum). It was there for a few decades, before moving to the current address on Museum Road – renamed as such in 1972, from Alexandra Road, to reflect its new use.
In January 2020 Portsmouth Museums celebrated its 125th anniversary.