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[8] Gas masks for museums

Gas mask T. 35 model (Italy) (source: private collection).

During World War I, gas attacks became a major concern for all armies. The use of gas bombs generated devastating effects on soldiers and many died or suffered terrible injuries. These bombs were used mostly in trenches and could kill or strongly debilitate many soldiers within a short period of time. Therefore, European armies had to provide their troops with essential tools to defend themselves from gas attacks. Thus, they produced new special devices, namely the gas masks.

A gas mask is a tool which allows you to breath through an air filter which can stop noxious substances like those utilised in gas bombs. The first devices were not so efficient and their function/efficacy was improved step by step. The production of gas masks was substantial until 1918 and each soldier should be provided with one device at least.

What about the Second World War? In Europe, gas was not utilised as occurred during World War I. However, the fear of a potential gas attack was impelling during the whole conflict. This pushed European states to actualise a series of exceptional measures to face any potential gas attacks which could also occur in urban contexts.

In this historical framework, SICILYWAR has focused on a specific research theme that is the distribution of special supplies for the Sicilian museums. The war economy had imposed strict rules to save money and regulate the allocation of funds for all regional and local safeguarding bodies. It can seem surprising but the Ministry of National Education was forced to organise a massive distribution of gas masks to local museums as well! The personnel was of course at risk to be hit in case of a gas attack. The production of devices did not imply any saving of funds, since the devices were imposed by the new, extraordinary war context.

In the National Museum of Palermo, for instance, each staff member was equipped with a gas mask. Each mask was personal and kept in a special storehouse, ready to be used in case of a gas attack. Museum personnel, of course, received a proper training in order to be able to use the gas masks properly. Training was provided by officials of the local fireman corp. Also Bovio Marconi had her own mask! We know that ca. 20 masks were sent to the Museum in the early 1940s. The model chosen by the Italian authorities was T. 35. The mask green-grey coloured with a black filter which had to be changed regularly. Mask and filter were also kept inside a bag which allowed the user to bring the tool with you at her/his own convenience.

What was the destiny of gas masks? As said (and luckily!), no gas attacks occurred in Italy during World War 2, as well as in Palermo. All gas masks were stored in the museum for a long period of time and finally given back to the state authorities. However, most of them were lost or abandoned. It is striking how the fear of gas attacks generated a substantial allocation of funds and a huge production of devices which were never used.