Category Archives: Museums

A research-based dilemma…

I’m currently in the phase of doing some more primary research for my book on Portsmouth’s Second World War dead. I’ve been looking at doing some research in the Archives of a small, independent military Museum (line infantry Regiment, shall we say). I enquired by email about visiting the Museum to do some research…. no problem. The cost though? £25… AN HOUR! So for a days research, which is the minimum I would need, I would be looking at something in the region of £150! That would be a sizeable percentage of the total money I would make out of selling the maximum print run of my book!

I just think its wrong. All I want to do is write about some brave men who didn’t make it home, but I’ll now have to do it without the help of their Regimental Museum. I know its expensive to run Museums – hell, I know that more than anyone, I pay the bills and process the income for six – but why charge such a prohibitively high cost? If you need to make money, think outside the box and get your income generation hat on rather than hitting people who are trying to do good work. It obviously doesn’t cost £25 an hour to have somebody visit to do research, so why penalise? It’s not as if researchers ever make money out of what they do… only the big-shot historians like Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor really make any money. At best I’m looking at covering my costs. At best.

I always thought the idea of the Regimental Museum was to preserve the memory of those who have died serving with it? Or am I missing a trick – is it that some Museum’s just don’t want any tom, dick or harry turning up poking their noses in, so they set the costs prohibitively high? I’m just at a loss to understand why there is such a barrier to access, study and commemoration. And especially with budget cuts, institutions will be unable to carry out research and projects that they might like to, making it all the more important to encourage and enable individuals to do so instead.

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Filed under debate, Museums, Remembrance

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

Youtube Picks

A Visit to The Tank Museum

This short film, entitled ‘A Visit to The Tank Museum’, was produced by Film Production Students from Bournemouth, on a budget of just £1,500! This is a great example of a good tie-up for a Museum – the students get a good project and excellent exposure, and the Museum get a cutting edge promo at a great budget!

Royal British Legion TV advert

This year’s Poppy Appeal is almost upon us, and this is a TV advert by the Royal British Legion which you might have seen on screen recently.

Exercise Joint Caterer

Think of Army Catering, and you tend to think of Bully Beef. Whilst I’m sure many serving and former Squaddies will disagree, military catering does seem to have moved on a lot from the western front. Events like this seem a great way of inspiring and encouraging cooks to be inventive with limited rations. An army really does march on its stomach, and eating the same food every day for 6 months cannot be good for morale…

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Tuesday’s Gone

I’ve always liked this song, right from when I first heard Metallica’s cover. Its got a special resonance for me at the moment. Enjoy!

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Filed under Army, Museums, Music, Uncategorized, videos

Education and Military History

I’ve always been mystified about the near total exclusion of military history from history teaching in schools. I’ve never managed to work out exactly where it comes from, but my guess is that somewhere along the lines a liberal assumption took hold that teaching young people about wars and fighting would encourage them to fight each other. Bizarre, in the least. But so it remained for some time. And especially while I was at school – we only learnt about wars though abstract means – in medicine through time, for example, we learnt how wars speed-up medical advances. Even then, the emphasis was on ‘progress’.

But I have noticed something of a shift in recent years. Perhaps it is the passing of the last WW1 veterans, and the ever-decreasing number of WW2 veterans, that has brought home to society that when participants pass on, memory becomes history. I also suspect that the high profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how people think about the armed forces and war.

There have been great changes in Education too. Its no longer enough to simply visit a museum and herd kids round. Many museums offer more focused workshop sessions. HMS Belfast even lets school groups sleep onboard overnight for the ‘at sea’ experience. Its important to constantly look for new and interesting ways of engaging young people. I spent some time working with groups of young people in an informal setting, and I really think that approach works for military history. No ‘this is what you will learn, blah blah…’ – it has to be enjoyable and interesting, and relevant to the people you are trying to teach. If you enjoy yourself, you are more receptive, whereas if you feel you are being lectured against your will, you subconsciously put up barriers. I’ve always thought that history should be taught out and about, and using objects, clothes, and other ‘hooks’.

One of the best education projects I have come across is the Discovering D-Day Project. OK, I might be a bit biased, as I work for the Service that runs the D-Day Museum. But I have been so impressed with some of the work that the project has brought out. The project involves tailored study days at the D-Day Museum for schools and youth groups, an opportunity to meet WW2 veterans, handling WW2 related objects, and using mobile phone technology to take photographs. The sessions can be based on History, Maths or English, for example. All of the evidence suggests that it has been a major success. It’s helped the Museum attract a completely new age range – in particular teenagers.

Take a look at some of these quotes:

‘I enjoyed today because it was fun and enjoyable to see these things instead of having to read from the books that are provided in schools. You get to see from the veterans’ side what it was like. Amazing trip!’ – Year 10 pupil

‘[The students]… enjoyed talking to the veterans so much they chose to talk to them through lunch!’ – Key Stage 4 Teacher

‘Pupils who have participated in the project have articulated its success with insight, commenting on how they had been inspired to work harder, to reach targets and to see themselves as independent learners preparing for a world beyond school.’ – Claire Austin-Macrae Regional Adviser (Functional Skills)

I cannot help but be impressed by the group of young people who wanted to skip lunch so they could keep talking to the veterans. And not only do the sessions seem to have been fun, but there have been some major improvements in grades, in particular with young people who were previously underachieving. I can remember watching a veteran give a reading of a Poem written by a School pupil, from the perspective of a soldier landing on D-Day. Very moving, and exactly the kind of thing education and military should be about.

And its not just school groups either – some of the youth groups who have taken part have produced some artwork that I would be perfectly happy to use as publicity images or book covers.

Just one example of how to ‘do’ military history with young people.

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Filed under education, Museums, World War Two

Youtube picks

Royal welcome home for 11 Light Brigade

Members of the British Army’s 11 Light Brigade marched through Westminster recently, in front of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. The Brigade recently returned from a 6 month tour of Afghanistan, where 64 soldiers were killed in action. The march through Winchester was followed by a service at the Cathedral.

The Altmark Incident

Richard Noyce of the National Museum of the Royal Navy tells us about the Altmark incident, and shows us an artefact from the Museum’s collections.

Muse featuring The Edge – Where the Streets Have No Name

I’m not normally a fan of the whole Glastonbury thing – more performers off the stage than there are on it – but this clip is amazing. Even though U2 couldn’t headline the Friday as planned, The Edge still turned up and joined Muse to play Where The Streets Have No Name, one of U2’s most epic songs.

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Filed under Army, Museums, Music, Navy, Remembrance, Uncategorized, videos

Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment WW1 War Diaries online

I’ve recently been helping a friend research an ancestor was killed at Galipoli in 1915. Almost by accident I found that the war diaries for 15 Battalions of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiments between 1914 and 1918 are available online at the Salisbury Rifles Museum website.

The War diaries cover the daily summary, normally written up by the Adjutant. The transcriptions on the Rifles Museum website do not include appendices, orders, reports or maps. Men are very rarely mentioned by name, but officers are.

For example, take a look at the entry for 10 August 1915, when my friend’s great-uncle was killed at Galipoli serving with the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. The war diary entry for that day shows that the Battalion suffered very heavy casualties fighting at ANZAC Bay.

War Diaries for the First and Second World Wars are also available to purchase from the Museum’s website.

Handy for researching family history, and much easier than going to Kew and leafing through and transcribing thousands of pages!

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Filed under Army, Family History, Museums, World War One

RAF Museum unveils the Battle of Britain Beacon

The RAF Museum have just released this video on Youtube showing their plans for a Battle of Britain Beacon.

This really is quite an innovative idea, and I think its exactly the kind of thing that Museums should be doing to bring history and heritage into the 21st Century. A Beacon is a great idea, giving the building exactly the right kind of image – of light, and hope. I really like how its a museum building, but it has a real purpose from the outside too. The planned new building is part of the Museum’s broader modernisation programme. It will allow wider public access to to the Museums Collections, something I always support.

Of course its very fitting to be focussing on the Battle of Britain, in the year of its 70th anniversary. The provision of suitable funding, and the agreement with interested parties and authorities with whom the Museum is consulting widely, will dictate when the Trustees of the Museum will take the final decision to proceed with construction.

Click here for more information about the Battle of Britain Beacon

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Filed under Museums, News, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, videos