More thoughts on military museums

Regular readers will be pretty aware – and possibly tired of me stating the fact! – that I have quite an interest in military museums. I’ve visited more than I care to remember, and in recent years I have made use of more than a few in a more professional capacity as a researcher and author. And having worked in museums in a number of capacities, naturally I have thoughts about the direction – or lack of – that some military museums are heading in.

The Ministry of Defence, facing serious budget pressures, has recently introduced a new report looking at the way that it supports Army museums in particular (as featured in the December issue of the Museums Journal). This month’s journal features an editorial from Richard Smith of the Tank Museum, Bovington – one of the more forward thinking military museums.

The Army currently supports 69 museums – infinitely more museums than there are Corps and Regiments in the modern Army. This is a legacy of a shrinking Army, which 50 years ago had scores of country Regiments, various Corps for every little function, and all kinds of other oddities. Between them these Museums host 5 million visitors a year, working out at an average of 72,000 each. When we consider that some such as Bovington will be getting much more than that, it is not too difficult to imagine that – to take a made-up example – the museum of the Royal Loamshire Fusiliers, merged in 1960, is probably a couple of rooms in Loamshire and gets about 5,000 visits a year.

I am not too sure that you could argue that military museums per se are industy leaders, as Richard Smith. SOME are – Bovington and the Imperial War Museum perhaps, and some of the more visionary provincial museums – but for every progressive museum there are plenty more standing still. Sadly, I think that it is probably right for the MOD to withdraw funding for museums 25 years after a Regiment has been amalgamted or disbanded. After 25 years, if the local community, old comrades etc have not managed to get the Regiment’s heritage onto a self-sustaining footing, its probably time to look at other options. With budget pressures, spending on heritage has to concentrate on what is relevant to today.

Army museums have to adapt or die. Appointing the National Army Museum as a sector leader is a positive move, and perhaps they could take on a leadership role much as the National Archives does for records offices and other repositories. Museums need to work together better – perhaps shared posts are an answer, as might be joint working such as travelling exhibitions, integrated events and education programmes, and increased loans.

I also think there is much potential for army museums to work more closely with ‘civilian’ museums. With the hundredth anniversary of the Great War looming, it is a perfect opportunity for local Regimental Museums to co-operate with the local town or city museum on putting together co-ordinated exhibtions, and loaning each other objects and materials to mutual benefit. The military, and by default military museums, should not sit divorced from society, but should look to become more involved in it. Regiments recruited from their area, losses in battle affected their communities, and veterans demobilising went back into society changed by their experiences. Their stories should be told in a ‘joined-up’ manner, not in dusty isolation.

Society at large is where the visitors, income and school groups come from that will keep many a small museum alive. Many museums have great potential for school groups, by linking into the national curriculum. Technology and Science is presented in museums such as REME at Arborfield, Logisitics Corps at Deepcut and Signals at Blandford Forum. Or how about medicine at the RAMC Museum in Aldershot? School groups are a real goldmine for museums. Venue Hire might be another income stream that would save museums from charging exobrient admission prices. But these are things that most public sector museums have been grappling with for years.

I do hope that Army museums can raise their game in years to come. It is so frustrating knowing that many of them have an aladdins cave of objects, documents and photographs, but are so short-staffed and cash starved that you cannot get at them. They usually charge just to visit their archives, and then charge the earth to reproduce photographs. Hence, the history of many Regiments and their men go hidden away. Which is a traversty.

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6 Comments

Filed under Army, Museums

6 responses to “More thoughts on military museums

  1. x

    My main concern is how history is taught in schools, what is taught, and most importantly the lens through which teachers view British history which ultimate affects how it is presented to their pupils. It is that which makes military museums relevant or not and ultimately decides on their future funding.

    Actually I will go a stage further to say it also how heritage studies is taught to undergraduates because they are next generation of curators and museum staff who obviously influence the direction of the “heritage industry.”

    I can’t articulate what I want to say so I will stop.

    • James Daly

      The problem with heritage studies is that to enter the heritage sector, you really need to have a postgraduate qualification. And hence, you probably need wealthy parents/spouse or like living in a serious overdraft. Hence curating and archives are really not easy for just anyone to access. And hence why such sectors – and I would include libraries in this – tend to be rather conservative (adjective) and have trouble being relevant to ‘ordinary’ people, and end up being a bit, well, top-down in their approach.

      I think the education thing is a two way process. Museums need to get hold of the national curriculum – or even the local unis history department – and work out every way they can tap into it by highlighting objects in their collections, exhibitions, and organising relevant events, workshops etc. And the onus should be on teachers to get their kids out there and use what is available – anyone who thinks you can teach history solely from a blackboard should look at themselves in the mirror.

      But then the national curriculum for history is sorely in need of overhauling, as it still teaches far too many subjects that by their very nature are difficult to interpret and bring to life – eg, cowboys and indians and apartheid south africa – yet ignores those that are sat on our doorsteps waiting to be discovered.

      • x

        It is a problem both of cultural and cognitive dissonance. I have got to be careful with how I phrase this…….

        At a secondary level we have teachers peddling shall we say a politicised history that on the whole doesn’t portray the country or its systems in a good light to a pupil audience on the whole aren’t that interested in academic matters, and worse still that “history” doesn’t resonate with the audience’s current culture or social model.

        While those who go on to study history at tertiary level will parrot back this pejorative politicised history as the accepted “truth” even though again it can be said for the majority it can be said not to reflect them culturally or socially. You are a product of your history even if you don’t know your history. And values that are common to different belief systems may have come into being through differing processes.

        I am stopping again. I can’t articulate what I want to say.

  2. Brian Iddon

    I agree with what you say about the Tank Museum at bovy being a forward thinking museum but it isn’t alaways a good thing.Since i first visited in 2001 the TM has changed a great deal.Since the development of the new display hall in particular the TM has become a bit slick and professional.I know they’ve got to get bums on seats but it’s still a shame.
    Don’t know if you’ve been to the Cobbaton Combat Collection in North Devon but it’s well worth a visit.I’ve never been to a museum like it.The best bits are not the larger exibits but the smaller items.Everthing was covered in dust and scattered all over the place,brilliant.

    • James Daly

      I do like the old Aladdins cave style museum, but sadly I think that museums really do have to get their act together to survive.

      Relevance brings visitors, visitors bring income, and income keeps the place going at the very least, and improves in the best case scenario. Bodies such as the HLF will not fund organisations such as museums unless they have a decent outreach and learning policies, and are attracting a good number of people and working at engaging educational groups.

      The thing is, society has changed an awful lot since most of the old school military museums were established. Many of them are ‘book on the wall’ style, which was fine for 1960. But now you have all kinds of technologies that can be utilised – visual, audio, improved design and production of exhibitions… and todays audience is much more demanding – kids used to playing medal of honour on the xbox will find museums with tons and tons of text on the wall pretty boring. I know I do!

  3. Brian Iddon

    You mention the HLF.I’m not sure how much money they’ve put into the engine for Tiger 131 but however much it is it’s to much.Everybody knows the Maybach engine in the Tiger and panther is a turkey so why waste money on it.
    I’m sure all enthusiasts want the keep the Tiger as original as possible but sometimes you’ve just got to admit defeat and be pragmatic.Just put in a modern diesel and enjoy.

    Sorry about my grammer,i’m not really a wordsmith.

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