Hendon Aerodrome, where the RAF Museum is based, has a long history and connection to the birth of aviation and the beginning of the RAF. The new ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition is telling a story uniquely linked to its location. The exhibition is trying to evoke a sense of the stories behind the objects and the people who held, trained, flew and wore them. The story of the First World War, and the role of aviation is not one that only has resonance in Hendon, it connects with people up and down the country and across the world.
The hard part for museums is to translate those stories beyond their four walls and to involve and engage with people from different locations and across the generations. Digital media is often a fantastic way to do this; sharing pictures, blogs and tweets can enable the museum to reach out to new audiences and encourage new visitors. Yet as much as I love social media and blogging, there is nothing as powerful as being hands on with objects. The touch and feel, even the smell of an object can reveal hidden memories or stimulate new questions and thoughts about a time we cannot now fully understand.
When I heard the RAF Museum was taking their handling collection ‘On Tour’ I was keen to find out more and speak to some of the people involved. I spoke to Vernon Creek, Education Officer at the RAF Museum, about the types of objects going on tour and asked him to pick out a favourite for me.
Our collection mainly consists of items of uniform and flying clothing, some original and some reproduction; full-length leather flying coats, leather and fur flying helmets, fur rimmed goggles, sheepskin lined boots, and culminates in original and reproduction Sidcot flying suits.
One of my favourite items is a very early (for flying) life belt called an Auliff-Perrin, which is inflatable and has strapping over and under the shoulders. This was a pre-cursor to all the aircraft life jackets of later wars, so is very special indeed.
First stop was the Yorkshire Air Museum, (4-7th June), Ian Reed, Director, told me why it is important to take the museum out of the museum.
In today’s world, artefacts in glass cases are no longer acceptable. As time passes, the politics of world history fades and it is the memories and experiences of individuals that matter most. “Social” history has meant that the stories of emotions, personal sacrifices, honour and courage in the face of overwhelming horrors, which a society was simply not prepared for, is a fascination for people of all ages today.
The next phase is to engage with visitors to the Chalke Valley History Festival, (25-28th June). Co-founder of the festival James Holland explained the appeal of living history and how the RAF Museum objects fit in.
The whole point of the festival is to excite, inspire and enthral people of all ages about history because we believe that it’s only by learning about the past that it is possible to understand the present and prepare for the future. One of the best ways to bring the past to life is by allowing people to make that link to real objects.
Final stop on the tour is a visit to the National Museum of Flight in Scotland, (9-12th July). Volunteer, Barry Currie, will be helping visitors get dressed up and talking about some of the stories behind the objects. He let me in on the best bit about being a volunteer.
It’s amazing how often people know something more about the object you’re talking about, so often we all gain from the conversation.
I have been privileged to get to know the learning team at the RAF Museum and talking to them about the handling collections has been a fascinating insight into how visitors love to get hands on. By taking the museum on tour the experience can be shared with more people and I guarantee new and fascinating stories have come to light. If you get a chance to see RAF Museum staff out and about, don’t forget to try on a uniform or two, take a few pictures and make sure you say hello. xxxxxxxxxxx The RAF Museum on Tour is part of our First World War in the Air Programme of Events. This activity is supported by Airfix. First World War in the Air is supported by BAE Systems and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Please vote for the RAF Museum and the First World War in the Air exhibition for a National Lottery Award. Voting ends on 29th July 2015 http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/project/first-world-war-air