MOD reviews support for Army Museums

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The Ministry of Defence has recently reviewed its support for Army Museums, as a result of the well-publicised ‘black hole’ in MOD funding. The proposals could save the MOD more than £0.5m a year, according to an article in this month’s Museums Association Journal.

At present many army museum staff posts come under the civil service. The MOD proposals are that 113 posts cease to be civil servants, and instead be funded by the museums. The review proposes to only fund one member of staff for each Museum from MOD funds, and this would lead to a reduction of another nine posts. Another proposal is to only support the Museums of disbanded Regiments for 25 years. This would lead to a fall in MOD funded museums from the current 69 to 36, based on current Army structures.

The issue of antecedent regimental museums is a very sensitive one. The politics involved in regimental mergers, disbandments etc since the end of the Second World War have been complicated enough to give even the most diplomatic civil servant a migraine. Just to give an example, the British Army currently consists of some 12 Infantry Regiments. In 1881 there were 74. With Cavalry, other Corps and Arms, the Ogilby Army Museums Trust currently lists 136 Army Museums in the UK. The MOD currently spends £4.3m on regimental museums, and £5.4m on the National Army Museum.

Take for example, the merger between the Royal Hampshire Regiment and the Queens Regiment in the early 1990′s. The Although that was over 20 years ago, there is still a Hampshire Regiment Museum in Winchester. There is also a Queens Regiment in Dover, which is also titled the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment Museum. Confused? You will be even more, when you find out that there are also Regimental Museums for the Sussex, Surrey and Royal West Kent Regiments. Whilst it is very admirable that Regimental families wish to keep going their history in their local area, some of these museums are so small, and badly in need of overhaul, in terms of approach and environment. One example of good practice I can recall is that of the Rifles. Formed a few years ago from the Royal Greenjackets, Light Infantry, the Devons and Dorsets and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments. Obviously, this meant a variety of Museums around the South West. The Greenjackets and Light Infantry Regiment Museums in Winchester promptly merged – conveniently they were next door to each other – and the Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment Museum in Salisbury now carries the title ‘Rifles’ in brackets.

To see how Army museums have evolved, we need to understand how the have developed throughout history. Most army museums grew up independently, along regimental lines. Regiments have always ‘looked after’ their own history and heritage, out of pride, and also to educate new recruits about their new families history. British Army Regiments have always been a fiercely tribal lot, and this translates into museums too. Whilst some have modernised very encouragingly, some are still stuck in the stone age.Museums have changed immeasurably in recent years – priorities have changed, the market is more commercialised, and more focus is needed on aspects such as learning. Technology has also changed, as has society itself. The options are to either stand still and receive few visitors, or evolve and stay relevant. And it can easily be understood how this is very difficult for museums dedicated to Regiments that have been disbanded for decades.

In some respects the state of Army museums is mirrored from the history of the Army itself – fragmented, tribal, and diverse. It is regrettable if cuts mean that some museums close, but perhaps it is an opportunity for rationalisation, and rationalisation does not necessarily have to mean moving backwards in all respects. In some respects cuts do force us to be more efficient than we might otherwise be in more plentiful times. I see it as an opportunity to improve standards – which, in my experience, are low where some regimental museums are concerned – and secure the future.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “MOD reviews support for Army Museums

  1. x

    I would sell the current NAM in Chelsea and use the money to build a new museum in the Midlands. And then move all the disparate (English) collections to this new museum.

    The NAM is an awful building nobody will miss it.

    • James Daly

      I’m not sure about just one in the Midlands, but I see the sense in rationalisation. There is a fair amount of duplication between the NAM and the IWM – 1914 onwards at any road. The NAM is what I would call an ‘OK’ Museum. OK, but thats about it. Nondescript, 1960′s building, safe and predictable exhibits. Museums need to do more nowadays. I suspect however the board of trustees is staffed by ten or so versions of General Lord Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett.

      As most often happens militarily, the more modern corps and regiments, born out of innovation, are more innovative with their heritage. I havent been to Airborne Assault yet, but it was a smart move for the Paras to move their museum to Duxford – much bigger footprint, in context with the aircraft, and not a million miles away from Colchester. The old Museum at Aldershot really was tired – just loads of stuff crammed in dull cases, with little or no interpretation or display. Sadly, in my experience many old Regimental Museums are basically a large house, with an old boy of the Regiment in charge, who though well intentioned, hasn’t got the foggiest about learning, collections, archives, marketing or anything that actually matters.

      • x

        I was joking about consolidation, well up to a point….. :)

        As somebody who survived a second year heritage module I often worry whether these issues are over analysed. Are the collection and place irrecoverably linked in each instance? I would say not. Yes place adds something but the presentation of the place itself has to be a strong feature. Take the RM Museum. Would the collection suffer itself if it were a mile or so down the front in a gallery of the RN Museum? No. I don’t think members of the public who go through its doors know exactly or care about the building’s previous life. For me the interest in the building are those features which are not presented as part of the collection, for example the various defence works and positions that can still be seen or discerned around the barracks’ walls. Then again perhaps my interest is a step beyond those of the average visitor. But if the collection wasn’t there and given the G2 status of the buildings those features would be still preserved. I suppose this is a direct contrast to Fort Nelson where the building is the major exhibit and the collection a peripheral thing that could be just as easily be part of the collection at Leeds.

        • John Erickson

          I just envy you folk your dedication to unit. We have hundreds of air museums, varying from 2 or 3 static planes to the grand Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio with over a thousand craft, but not one is truly dedicated to a particular squadron (for example). The closest we get to unit devotion are the various museum ships, and when you name your battleships after entire states, that loses a bit of its’ intimacy.
          Of all of the Canadian museums I saw, I was most taken by an Army one in the small town of Brantford – sharing a warehouse with a motorcycle museum, of all things. (Nope, no DR stuff – major bummer.) This may sound kinda hokey, but you could feel the love and dedication, even though the environment was more like a parking garage than a museum. (And I REALLY felt the love when I walked in one time in WW2 uniform, not knowing there were some actual WW2 vets visiting. Ever been attacked by a dozen old geezers, adjust EVERY strap and buckle on your clothing? “Highly intriguing” is the best I can do! :D Though I did get a kick out of it afterward!)

        • James Daly

          Agreed re the RM Museum. In time some of the area in the Dockyard might become available to do something interesting with Landing Craft in the Basins, perhaps? Not sure about Submarines, don’t know how you could move Alliance. But then again Alliance herself is hardly a historically valuable piece.

          • x

            Well Alliance is another matter. My Dad would love to visit an SSN. He doesn’t believe me when I say one submarine is much like another. :)

            The odd thing about the Historic Dockyard if you think about it is the “historic dockyard” isn’t a feature of the “presentation” in itself. All the interesting bits are beyond the fence or hidden away. In July when walking down to HMNB the thought struck me has anybody “documented” the dockyard wall. It is rich in historical detail. Then I remembered how I struggled to produce evidence to prove to my cadets that HMS Excellent had its own zoo and I began to wonder how many of the RN’s ordinary buildings had been recorded.

            • James Daly

              I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Portsmouth Papers series, they’re a collection of middle-sized essays on Portsmouth’s local history. There is one number that looks at the industrial archaeology of the Dockyard, very comprehensively – storehouses, docks, pretty much every building including all the quirky little machinery and god knows what else is under there.

              I agree though, the history of the Dockyard itself is criminally under represented. There is the Dockyard Apprentice exhibition, which is better than nothing, but is starting to look its age and isn’t as engaging or comprehensive as it could be. My Dad was an electrical fitter (76-82) and he finds that the exhibit doesn’t really do the experience justice. Apart from the wooden toolbox ‘coffins’!

          • John Erickson

            If you want to know about dealing with submarines for museums, go look up the U-505 at Chicago’s Museum Of Science And Industry. They brought her in from the Atlantic up the St. Lawrence and into Lake Michigan, then closed down Lake Shore Drive (think one of the “M” routes around London) and hauled her across and to her permanent berth. She sits proudly in a courtyard, outside (shudder!) but surrounded by buildings. Sadly, they close her to tours during the coldest part of winter – it’d be great to go aboard her when it’s 20 degrees out, get the feel of a cold boat deep in the Atlantic! :)

              • James Daly

                I would love to have a look round a U-boat. I’ve always been a bit miffed about Alliance. The A class were designed in the closing stages of WW2 for service in the Far East, but didn’t see much action. I get the impression that Alliance just happened to be available, and was seized upon, not because she has any kind of special historical significance. I enjoy the RN Sub Museum, but more for the collections and the ‘bits and pieces’ than the boat. Kind of like the Mary Rose – the ship itself is wood, but its the time capsule inside thats really fascinating.

              • John Erickson

                They CUT HER UP?!? Heathens! The whole POINT of having a U-boat is to experience the claustrophobic interior! Philistines!
                Well, now, y’all need to come over to the States, and let me give you a tour of an INTACT U-boat! Remember, I work cheap! :D

  2. John Erickson

    Please don’t take my following use of “Commonwealth” as an insult, gents. Y’all are included! :)
    It amazes me how dedicated Commonwealth folk are to their regiments. We have few division level museums, and have to work hard to get (or keep) our branch-wide museums. I was stunned by the little “holes in the wall” scattered throughout Canada celebrating local regiments. My adoptive unit, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, is a series of 4 small rooms in the basement of an old armoury, with the active duty unit (Argyll and Sutherlands, if I recall correctly) occupying the rest. While I understand the desire to cut costs, and the on-the-surface confusion of museums for units that don’t technically exist anymore, I would like to see consolidate as little as possible, especially for units with long, much-honoured service.
    But that’s what all us rich Yanks say! ;)

  3. James Daly

    The tribal nature of British military museums is very much a reflection of how tribal the British military can be, in particular the Army. It is wonderful to see such loyalty, as I comment in my forthcoming book (ching ching!), it is surely easier to become loyal to a name rather than a number. Yet it is a double edged sword – many of the regimental museums are tiny, outdated, and a poor representation of their collection.

    I’m all in favour of museums looking at alternative ways of safeguarding their heritage. The Royal Anglian Regiment Museum is within the IWM at Duxford, and a few regimental museums have handed over their collections to local museums services. The problem with piggy-backing onto a larger entity is that the Regiment might get swallowed up. But what we don’t want, above all, is a plethora of tiny aladdins caves, covered in literasl and metaphorical dust, and manned by well intentioned old boys, that no one ever visits.

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