It is four years since I was Blogger in Residence at the RAF Museum for their First World War in the Air exhibition, it was a year I found more challenging than I thought it would be. Uncovering not only the stories of those early pilots and pioneers of flight but also delving into the roles and responsibilities of staff at the RAF Museum.
I am back at their opening week after a £26 million refurbishment and after seeing so many familiar faces it is more more emotional than I expected. I suspect past memories of spending the night dancing away with staff from the museum at the National Lottery Awards tends to bond you more than you realise.
Whilst there are only subtle changes to the exterior of the museum with a new car park and landscaped spaces, it is inside that the new galleries have been radically altered. There are three new galleries that set out the story of the RAF as it commemorates 100 years since its formation in 1918. RAF Stories: The First Hundred Years tells the story of the RAF from its creation and includes momentous events of the Second World War and Cold War as well as more recent contemporary operations. RAF – First to the Future explores the work of the RAF today with an interactive gallery that focuses on the technology that will help young visitors connect to the past and look to the future. RAF in an Age of Uncertainty – tells the story of the RAF since the end of the Cold War including the Falkland Islands, Iraq and operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya.
I have returned to the museum not for a press view but a private view which is ram packed with talks across all areas of the project from interpretation, community engagement and volunteering to digital strategy and improvements in the learning programme. But first up for the day is an introduction to the project by Maggie Appleton the RAF Museum’s Chief Executive.
Appleton explains the strategic thinking behind this long planned transformation of the Hendon site as an integral part of the RAF centenary celebrations. It was important for her and the team to position the museum as one that tells social history rather than simply a military museum.
She talked about the challenge of presenting both a national museum and a local museum that sets the local community at its heart. For the first time the museum really wanted to be a space for locals as well as welcoming those who have travelled from outside the neighbourhood to seek out the story of the RAF.
I thought it was lovely how she thanked the museum community for their help and guidance in developing the museum. It is one of the reasons I love the sector. Their supportive approach and openness means professionals are continually learning and sharing with each other.
It is a sign of the times that Appleton talked about their focus on sustainability, particularly for a ‘free’ museum that still has to be financial independent. With a new cafe, shop and corporate spaces it was important that interpretation told the story of the RAF across the whole site. Taking part in the Royal opening later on in the week I could see first hand how they can impressively accommodate 400-500 people for sit down meals.
On the private view I spent 5 hours at the museum there was so much to hear, see and do. But this blog is not specifically about the new spaces, as impressive as they are. For me the key to the success of the transformation is in the community engagement and their work with volunteers which I find every bit as impressive and transformational and, I hope, sustainable into the future.
Joe Sullivan, Heritage Outreach Officer, talked us through the community engagement strand of their Heritage Lottery Funding with a project called ‘Historic Hendon’. Sullivan’s aim was not just to link people with the museum but also the history of where they live. Barnet is seeing huge investment and regeneration with the council planning 25,000 homes over the next 25 years 1. Every time I hop off the tube at Colindale I am surprised by the number of new flats which have sprung up. There is a strong BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community in Barnet, at around 40% 2, whilst many live on the land of the old Hendon Aerodrome in roads named ‘Spitfire Way’, ‘Grahame Park’ (after early aviator Claude Grahame White) and ‘Aeroville’ (houses built by Grahame White for aircraft factory workers), few know the history of where they live.
It was important, with the huge increase in population, to provide community spaces in the transformed museum with green areas to picnic and an outdoor play area. Part of the museum mission is to become a community social space as well as a museum.
Sullivan began by asking the community what they wanted, it was important that locals felt they had a voice and influence in the project. They looked at objects and photographs across the collection and gave individuals the freedom to decide and choose what appealed to them. They created their own emblem and collages that told their own stories and reflections about the Hendon site. They created fantastic giant themed bean bags that featured their collages as well as decorated table tops.
In the Cafe community participants got to choose the images that would be displayed in the new space. Seeing their ideas and thoughts lent a sense of validation, not only that they have taken part in this process, but they have been listened too and have influenced the final design.
Sullivan had recently been working on an ESOL (English as a Second Language) Conversation Cafe in conjunction with Barnet and Southgate College where students came to the cafe with their families to improve their English away from the college campus in a relaxed learning environment. Facilitated by volunteers, the casual chatting doesn’t feel like learning for the participants and they get to bring their families along so everyone benefits. They had even welcomed a Syrian refugee family who had only been in the country two weeks, it is not easy to navigate an RAF Museum that surrounded by weapons of war but the cafe provides a safe welcoming neutral space where families can feel they are a part of the community.
From listening about community engagement I moved on to hearing about how the museum had been working with volunteers. Rachel Ball, Volunteer Manager, talked about the developments she had implemented not only to increase the numbers of volunteers but working with them in a new integrated way. The numbers were impressive, moving from around 80 volunteers on site in 2014 to 163 in 2018 and engaging over 100 with remote volunteering projects as part of the transformation. But what really impressed me was the range of departments the volunteers now engaged with including blogging, conversation cafe, gardeners and access advisory group.
Ball had worked hard integrating volunteers and staff across new departments, training up volunteer managers to give them ownership of their work with volunteers. She said it was important to take on concerns over staff time and barriers over trust in what volunteers can and can’t do. For her it was about creating a culture where it is okay to make mistakes and not let fear of trying new ways of working become the reason for not trying.
Ball had been working hard to give volunteers a voice, getting them involved in the staff forum, with volunteer team leaders going to quarterly staff meetings particularly important in times of great change. She also introduced ‘meet the trustee’ afternoons and reciprocal site visits to their other site at Cosford. It was also important to recognise the work of volunteer managers and provide them with the right skills so they felt supported.
Another key strand to the increase in numbers of volunteers was diversifying the types of volunteers too. Introducing different projects was vital to this such as the conversation cafe, but also Joe Sullivan’s role as Heritage Outreach Officer meant he could often make those vital first connections with new groups.
I have been seriously impressed with everything the RAF Museum has done and is trying to do. I think I can see from the first talk Chief Executive Maggie Appleton gave at the start of the day that she is leading from the front on a strategy that has an inclusive ethos at it’s heart. Not only to set people at the heart of the RAF story but people at the heart of the museum too.
On a personal level it was incredibly refreshing and inspiring to spend the day listening to female leaders in their field representing the museum and the RAF that perhaps has not always been as diverse as it could be. Maggie Appleton – chief executive, Karen Whitting – director of content and programmes, Rebecca Dalley – head of centenary programmes, Angela Vinci – head of exhibitions and interpretation and Rachel Ball – Volunteer Manager impressed me with their passion for creating change. Change that is not just for the sake of it but change to react to a new world and new situations. Like the RAF that has to be at the forefront of technological innovation to stay relevant and effective, the museum can’t languish on old ideas or ways of working. Whilst large hangers and lots of planes had their place for a generation on the coat tales of World War II, there is a new generation that has to see our place in the world is complex and decisions are never taken lightly or in a vacuum.
Anniversaries are a time to reflect, a time to celebrate all that has passed but also a time to look forward to the future. What do we want to do with all we have learnt? What new horizons do we want to see? The RAF Museum is celebrating 100 years of bravery and sacrifice but also 100 years of people sharing their lives together. People are the heart of the RAF and the RAF Museum has made sure people are at the heart of the story. It is not an easy job to do but I take my hat off to the museum for trying to be something new, I am proud to have spent time working with the collections and trying in my own way to understand those stories. All that is left is to urge you to go and see for yourself, in the Centenary year of the RAF, all those who have been a part of the story.
You can read my blogs from my time as Blogger in Residence at the RAF Museum on their website – https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/london/whats-going-on/events/opening-of-first-world-war-in-the-air-exhibition/
The RAF Museum is free to visit, to find out more about opening hours please see the website – https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/
1 – Delivering for Barnet – Regeneration Report https://www.barnet.gov.uk/citizen-home/regeneration.html
2 – Barnet Demography https://www.barnet.gov.uk/jsna-home/demography.html