A brand new museum is a thing to behold, it smells of excitement, expectation, everything shiny and new, except for the objects of course. They tend to come old and conserved. I feel the need to say right at the start that the new National Army Museum (NAM) does not disappoint. It is in many ways impressive. I have just visited but I am very keen to go back, there is so much to see and do.
I have been reading up on military museums and came across this quote from the NAM director, Janice Murray1 –
“There is a misconception, even within the museum sector, that military museums exist to recruit people.”
“There is a section of society that does not want to engage with any museum dealing with the military or war.”
To be honest I may be naive but I hadn’t even thought of army museums in that way. Having spent a year as Blogger-in-Residence at the RAF Museum’s ‘First World War in the Air’ Gallery, what I do know is telling the story of war and military personnel is not an easy thing. The passage of time can make it easier but to stay relevant military museums also have to tell the story of the here and now, and that is where it can get difficult.
As I see it, military museums face two major problems, the increasingly prominent challenge of funding, and their public image. There are, as Murray mentions, many people who will not engage with their narrative in any form and it is perhaps this audience that a museum like NAM has to actively seek out.
On the press preview Murray was keen to impress upon us that it is the visitor who has shaped this new version of the army museum. It is feedback about what was disliked and what was wanted that has been paramount. I never visited the old museum so my visit comes with no preconceptions, but the aim to open up a dark and dingy building has certainly been realised. A whopping £23.75 million transformation (including £11.5 million from the National Lottery) has occurred in the original brutalist style building on the Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea. The fabric of the building has been upgraded and expanded including a prominent and welcoming new entrance.
The increased use of glass and new light and airy atrium makes it feel open and spacious, it feels very different and less intimidating from my recent trip to the new Design Museum on Kensington High Street. There are five new permanent thematic galleries; Soldier, Army, Battle, Society and Insight as well as a huge 500m2 temporary exhibition space. It seems modern museums have an absolute phobia of any design that approaches a bog standard chronological display preferring ‘chrono-thematic’ galleries.
The NAM takes the history of the army and its impact from its origins in the Civil War to the present day. On the press day we are given tours that, as you would expect, were organised with military precision, but we only spent a short time in each gallery before moving on. This blog is more about first impressions but I would certainly benefit from a return trip.
We began our tour in the temporary exhibition space which hosts ‘War Paint – Brushes with conflict’ a fascinating look at the longstanding relationship between art and the army. The exhibition really exemplifies what the new museum does for the NAM collections. There are no loans but 130 paintings and objects brought out of the stores and given their chance to shine.
The gallery is huge, the space to display a number of larger works must be a real treat. It is really good to see modern pieces bringing the displays bang up to date. This includes Michael Crossan’s ‘Brothers in Arms, 2012’ which highlights art as rehabilitation and the struggle many soldiers have to re-integrate with society.
It is also good to see Mark Neville’s slow motion video of Bolan Market, Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan from 2011. The silent film captures different responses of Afghans to the British Troops as they patrol and it is more powerful than any words. I met Mark at an exhibition of his work at the Foundling Museum and he talked about his visit to Afghanistan, so seeing his work on display at the NAM is a highlight for me.
It is a just a shame such a lovely space and fascinating objects which must have looked great at installation seem to suffer from poor lighting which makes some labels hard to read.
Next we move on to the Soldier gallery, this focuses on oral history and direct quotations allowing the voices of soldiers to explore the commonality of experience over the years. There are some poignant displays of uniforms exploring the role of hereditary military tradition within families, and a beautiful child’s uniform reminds us that children have played a part in war and continue to do so in contemporary global conflict.
Interactives are spread throughout the museum from opportunities to choose food on touch top tables to learn about soldiers rations, to rifles and dress up. It is, I think, the most interactive museum I have seen with so much to get hands on and involved with for all different ages. There is even a virtual marching drill and an opportunity to ‘like’ objects that will be very familiar with the Facebook generation.
In this gallery there is also an action theatre with immersive video and sound projection that places you at the heart of serving on the front line through history. Whilst it is important that galleries are exciting on many levels not just visually, I did find the sound from this section coupled with other audio voices and the marching interactive which included lots of stamping and giggling did make it hard to focus on what the curator was saying and a little overwhelming.
Bearing in mind this was also with only a small group in the gallery I wonder how sound levels in a full museum would be. I often can’t help but have my “autism and sensory” hat on, and whilst I would never want a museum to be silent, military museums often pose particular auditory challenges with the noises of gunfire and bombs ricocheting in your ears. But I was please to see seating spaced throughout the space with thought to visitors who struggle to sit down and get up.
A more interesting gallery in some ways and very much a sign of our times is the ‘Society and the Army’ space on the top floor of the museum. This gallery looks at the army and its cultural influences from film, theatre and poetry to fashion and even vernacular vocabulary that now feels commonplace but has its origins in 18th and 19th century battles. It is an exciting and gallery, perhaps for visitors who weren’t really interested in coming to an army museum in the first place.
At times visually there is a lot going on and I felt that museum objects began to take second place to bold visuals from floor to ceiling, particularly where the object cases are in-set. I guess it becomes more about the experience than the actual objects.
But that is the real heart of this transformation, the amazing objects that have survived hundreds of years. Objects used and taken in the heat of battle. Behind the neon lights there are precious objects that shine, beautifully conserved and many now on show for the first time.
In the ‘Battle’ gallery, which explores the experience of battle in four eras, this is exemplified by a beautiful standard and eagle captured at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. You can see the fragility of the silk displayed for the first time, it hints not only at the fragility of objects but also the ephemeral shifting nature of alliances and lives over the centuries.
Equally in the ‘Army’ gallery, which charts the history of the army as an institution, there is a beautiful flag from 1650 belonging to Sir John Gell’s regiment who fought for Parliament during the Civil Wars. Again on show for the first time, it tells the story of a country torn and the shifting nature of power from King to Parliament aided by military might.
For me the most interesting gallery was the ‘Insight’ space on the lower ground floor. The five cases focus on the often delicate nature of the army’s relationship and interactions with cultures across the globe. The cases can be regularly rotated and currently focus on Scotland, Germany, Ghana, Punjab and Sudan.
Here the interpretation is stripped back and the objects are clear to see from all angles and beautifully displayed. This gallery is very much about new ways of working with the diverse communities that live in the UK. It is an attempt to not only come to terms with our often brutal past but also to understand the significance of objects to different groups of people.
I think it is the most contemporary way of display, here I am not talking about computer screens and ‘like’ buttons (although they supplement the section and give opportunities to leave comments). But the chance to turn traditional narratives on their head, to circumvent traditional views not just internal but external to an army story that is hundreds of years old. Working with different communities, starting new conversations, allows the NAM to potentially be daring and brave. Of course we can talk about the history of dates and facts, but to be relevant to today’s audiences there needs to be space to hear different voices about those events.
In the atrium on the ground floor there is a bright timeline and the decades and wars or conflicts are displayed in brightly coloured blocks. 2000 onwards seems small and rather empty, we are perhaps a little unsure of where we are heading and what we are doing.
The army may have continually evolved and changed from the time of the Civil War and 17th century strife, it may be much smaller and use much more technology, but it is still ever present and important. What we decide to do today, tomorrow and into the future must be counterbalanced by all that has gone before, the bravery, the duty and the horror.
The army story does not end with our last great war or last media covered intervention, it is continuing every day. It is how I see this museum, the opening of the new NAM is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning. The narrative, the programming and events that go forward are as important as the decisions we take. The NAM has a very powerful and important role in helping visitors to understand the past, to help us take those steps into the future that must be informed and unblinded by bias and prejudices.
In the rush to re-display and in the effort to remain relevant the NAM still has to be careful. History is taught to school children in bite size chunks, there is no over arching narrative. They learn of this battle and that conflict. Presenting war in themes can make it hard to see the significance of certain periods in time. This is powerfully brought to mind in an article in the New York Times on the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
“We find that, with the war being further removed from all of us, but especially for young people and people from outside of Europe, our visitors don’t always have sufficient prior knowledge of the Second World War to really grasp the meaning of Anne Frank and the people in hiding here,” said the museum’s managing director, Garance Reus-Deelder.
As the First World War slips out of living memory and the Second World War rapidly diminishes in time, is a museum the one place to be bold with chronology and progression. Or be more responsive to visitor needs, visitors who digest information in very different ways, who ‘tweet, like and snapchat’.
Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Memorial Museum in Washington sums it up best for me in that article and I hear this sentence echoing in my ears when I think about the NAM and military museums in general.
“The effort to be relevant,” she added, “can lead to the trivialization of history.”
The NAM is a fantastic achievement, my niggles are purely that. I feel I must by hyper critical. In reality it is exciting and enticing, engaging and fascinating and I can’t wait to go back. A ringing endorsement is to attract the return visitor. I just hope they attract new audiences and stay true to new voices, they certainly deserve to.
The National Army Museum opened 30 March 2017. It is free but there is a charge for the children’s Play Base. Tickets can be bought in advance online. For more information and opening hours please see the website – https://www.nam.ac.uk/
The featured image of the NAM atrium is copyright of the National Army Museum.
1 – Military museums to diversify, Museums Association Journal, Issue 144/12, 1/12/2014 http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news-analysis/01122014-military-museums-to-diversify