The Ashcroft Gallery: a review

Front of the Imperial War Museum London

Imperial War Museum (Image via Wikipedia)

I was up in London yesterday after seeing Biffy Clyro at Wembley Arena on Saturday evening, so popped into the Imperial War Museum to take a look at the New Lord Ashcroft Victoria Cross and George Cross Gallery.

To sum up, I’m disappointed. The medals, the heroes, the stories are legendary… but the Gallery itself – is that it? I can’t believe it took £5 million – yes, £5 million! – to do that. The interactive touch screens and use of media is very good, but hardly ground-breaking. The medals themselves are displayed in simply wooden boxes, that any reasonably skilled DIY enthusiast could knock together in their garden shed. The room itself is not large at all, and I can’t understand why its on the fourth floor and not the ground floor. There’s no rhyme or reason as to how the gallery is laid out, and its difficult to find any given individual’s medals. I’m told that the 241 medals are arranged in terms of qualities such as leadership, sacrifice, aggression, skill, initiative, endurance, and boldness, but it didn’t seem that logical to me.

It’s disappointing that Britain’s principal military museum cannot do better. I work in local museums and I’ve seen how inventive Exhibition designers have to be and can be with shrinking budgets and rising expectations, and I can’t see for the life of me how the exhibition itself cost £5m. Consultants, feasibility studies, options appraisals, sub-contractors, researchers, over-the-top marketing maybe. But the largest collection of the world’s most hallowed medals deserves an almost spiritual experience, not just another exhibition.

I was there to look for the George Cross and medals of CPO Reg Ellingworth, the Portsmouth Mine Disposal rating killed in 1940. Me and my mate spent a good twenty minutes hunting for his medals, and without the aid of any kind of plan or index it was hard going. We finally found Ellingworth’s display, and on the multimedia screen I found several photos of Ellingworth that I had never seen before, including one of him in tropical white uniform and a rather hazy photo of him at work on a mine – neither of which I had seen before, or even appear on the IWM’s online catalogue of images! But it is nice to see a brave man such as Ellingworth being remembered in such a prominent place – now to make sure that Portsmouth recognises him and his peers too.

Back to the Exhibition, I disagree quite strongly with the way ‘Ashcroft’ gets crowbarred into everything – it should be about the (extra)ordinary medal winners, not a dubious tax-exile whose meaningful contribution to humankind is, errm, hang on a minute… nothing. If he had any kind of humility he wouldn’t insist on plugging his name at every opportunity. Even the Gallery’s website is full of pictures of the man himself, and links to his books. Tasteless. Plenty of philanthropists donate money to causes such as this without demanding that their name is emblazoned everywhere. Just an observation.

I’ve never understood this blind obsession with VC’s and GC’s either. There are plenty of incredibly brave men who were only awarded DSO‘s or DCM‘s. There are also stories of men performing incredibly brave deeds and receiving no recognition at all because their officer did not write the act up properly. My thoughts, as someone who has done a fair bit of research into thousands of men who were killed in the First and Second World Wars, is that bravery is not limited to medals alone.

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15 Comments

Filed under Army, Museums, Navy, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, victoria cross, World War One, World War Two

15 responses to “The Ashcroft Gallery: a review

  1. John Erickson

    That’s a common problem, James, the lack of recognition for “second place”. Everyone in the US has heard of the Medal Of Honor, but few people know about our Distinguished Service Cross, or Distinguished Flying Cross, or Navy Cross, or Silver and Bronze stars. Here in the states, it’s a pernicious symptom of “there’s the winner and everybody else”. To pull from sports, if your team loses the Super Bowl or World Series, you’re all losers. Never mind your team is better than all other teams with a single exception – you’re in second, you’re a loser. If you get the MOH, you win. DSC/DFC? Second rate, second best. It’s a disgusting, infuriating lack of character, and it cheapens the memories and sacrifices of all military personnel.

  2. x

    Yes Ashcroft’s name does get everywhere; some people are not as self-effacing as they could, as they should, be. As I pointed out to you over “extinguisher gate” he had sponsored a building at the institution attended by “tosser 1.” That is fire extinguisher tosser of course…… ;)

    £5million does seem a lot for what is being shown. At least you didn’t go all that way for just one event.

    Another question you have to ask, and you probably have, is is the IWM fit for purpose?

  3. Shirleyanne

    I can assure you that as a daughter of a VC Hero, no one has ever forgotton or will ever forget the heros of all world wars especially the heroes currently seriving in Afgan / Iraq etc.

    My father was a very humble man who always suggested there were many other people braver than he.

    I find your comments disrespectful to those who have been awarded such gallantry medals, some of their stories are unbelievable in the face of enemy, YES every single person in armed forces is a hero BUT there are some who do go beyond the call of duty which is what these medals are all about. Do not take away the bravery of the men and women who have risked their lives beyond the call of duty, as I said yes eveyone deserves a medal but just leave it at that you do not have to cheapen the memory of those that have been brave enough to be awarded such an honour

    • John Erickson

      Shirleyanne- I won’t presume to speak for James, but for myself, I must ask what comments you found disrespectful. I am more than willing to admit that the higher the award, the greater the courage shown – as it should be. For myself, I was bemoaning the tendency, especially here in the States, to downplay the other awards. US news agencies will fall all over themselves to report on a MOH winner – and yes, those people should be recognised. But so should those with “lesser” awards. In the US, the measure for awarding the MOH is set extremely high – too high, of late, for those who should have been recognised for sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sometimes the difference between a Distinguished Service Cross and a Medal Of Honor is purely up to superior officers. I doubt James or X meant any disrespect. You would be hard-pressed to find a group more supportive of veterans than our little band here. If any words I chose caused offence, please tell me so that I may explain myself. I would ask the same for James and X. Thank you.

    • James Daly

      Shirleyanne I think perhaps you have misinterpreted my thoughts as certainly no disrespect was intended, indeed I take respect very seriously. You will notice that I have spent many hours researching Reg Ellingworth GC, and about a year ago I ran a series of posts covering VC heroes. What I hoped to get across is that sometimes some historians, and people like Ashcroft, get so wrapped up in the hype of supreme awards it is to the exclusion of the broader context that tells us all about their brave deeds. We only understand, for example, major robert cains VC fully if we learn about the battle of arnhem in a wider sense. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And studying other awards also adds to the picture – why was a man awarded a DSO or a DCM and not a VC, for example? And what did a VC or GC winner do before and afterwards, for example? I hope I’ve explained my thoughts satisfactorily as I really don’t intend to show any disrespect to anyone.

  4. Shirleyanne

    “there’s the winner and everybody else”. To pull from sports, if your team loses the Super Bowl or World Series, you’re all losers. Never mind your team is better than all other teams with a single exception – you’re in second, you’re a loser.
    There are bits to the post that I find disrespectful not just to the heroes who have been awarded Gallentry medals but to those who have not but ARE still recognised by us all as heroes, the bit about ‘never mind your team is better than all other teams’ to me means that some war heroes are better than others , my point is that despite what gallentry medal you have been awarded be it the VC, GC, DSC or even a serving medal, I and my father thought of them as all heroes. However,some people have gone way beyond the call of duty – it may have been every serving soldier will do the same but it just happens those awarded the medals were the one’s that did and were quite rightly awarded. By doing this no one will ever take away the fact that everyone is a hero and no one thinks any less of them by not being awarded one of the ‘more distinguised medals’. I realise perhaps that perhaps all your emails were not minimising the acts of the VC’s etc but as the daughter of a VC holder I am very protective of his memory and just wanted to put forward that none of us think what my dad did was any different to all the other heroes who have served or are serving in the armed forces. On another point I do appreciate people such as yourselves taking the opportunity of writing on these subjects, I was and still am so very proud of my father and to know that people can find the time to write on these sujects is in my opinion brillient. :-)

    • John Erickson

      Shirleyanne, I must apologise for not being clear. I was condemning the prevalent American view that there are winners and there are everybody else. Almost every American has heard of the Medal Of Honor – few have even HEARD of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, or any of the rest. I wanted to demonstrate that people who earned “lesser” awards (I don’t think that ANY award earned it lesser) are often ignored. All medal winners should be remembered – as should ALL who served. EVERYONE who went to war deserves to be remembered AND honoured. VC winners (and our MOH winners) are VERY important, and should be recognised – I don’t deny that at all. I’m sorry if my clumsy wording caused offence – I sometimes get lazy in my writing amongst our little group here, and forget that outsiders who don’t know me (lucky people!) may drop by. Once again, my sincerest apologies for causing offence.

  5. anyway

    Hey, no worries perfectly understand and agree with your point of views that all war heroes deserve to be remembered as heroes.
    My father was Norman Jackson VC, you may or may not have heard of his story, his VC is actually part of the Ashcroft collection (which I am not too happy about) but that’s another story! anyway thanks again for your replies and once again it is very much appreciated that people continue to write about such things. Regards Shirleyanne

    • James Daly

      Shirley I was going to ask who your father was but I wasn’t sure if it is the done thing! I know his story well, out of all the VC stories it is one of the most remarkable ever. I’m honoured to correspond with you.

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