Tag Archives: military museum

The dilemma of Military Museums

I regularly keep an eye on quite a few jobsites, especially ones concerning Museums. I guess you could say a job working at a Military Museum would be my dream. Just recently, I noticed a job advertised for Director of a well-known British Army unit’s Museum. It makes very interesting reading indeed.

Qualifications and Experience: Detailed and up to date knowledge of the Army and Royal Signals in particular, including military communications and their significance to the command and control of operations.

Now, it strikes me that the only person likely to have that kind of experience is going to be a retired officer!

Both the Royal Marines Museum and the RN Submarine Museum have raised eyebrows recently by appointing non-service types to senior posts. Previously, the unwritten rule was that to have any chance of being Director of a military museum, you had to be a former serving sailor, soldier or airman. This doesnt just apply to senior posts, but all posts down to shop cashier sometimes. Its a real ‘jobs-for-the-boys’ thing.

While I see nothing wrong with giving jobs to people who have served the country, I do question the wisdom of keeping such institutions as a closed shop. A narrow and exclusive recruitment policy severely limits the experience, expertise and dynamism that will be found in the museum. Neither does it reflect the realities of running a Museum – what is a retired officer likely to know about applying for grant funding, formal and informal learning, or community outreach?

A young person who has just graduated with a Degree or a Masters might not be wearing the Regimental tie, and they might not know the Regimental March, but such things can be learnt. Also, they are more likely to bring new, fresh ideas to the table. Some Military Museums have grasped the bull by the horns and appointed people who have expertise in marketing and heritage in a broader sense, which is remarkably foresighted for a sector of the Heritage industry that is usually remarkably insular and conservative.

Especially at a time when Museums are facing many changes and challenges, and are having to re-examine their policies and priorities in the face of funding challenges and a depressed economic situation. It is not a time to rest on laurels or to try and preserve the status quo.

Maybe 20 years ago it was OK to bung a load of uniforms in a glass case and leave them there. But in the twentieth century the visiting public, and indeed the Regiments and units that the Museums are dedicated to, deserve a lot better. Regiments and their history have so much to contribute to society – there are plenty of ways that they can complement the national curriculum, for example.

The link between Armed Forces and general public is absolutely crucial, as shown by the recent growth of interest in charities such as Help for Heroes, and the attendances at Wootton Basett for repatriations from Afghanistan. Museums SHOULD have a role in this, as a place for people to find out about the armed forces, and for the armed forces to meet and inspire people. But apart from a few notable cases, in a lot places this doesnt really seem to be happening.

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Military Museums – at a crossroads?

Airborne Assault at Duxford

Airborne Assault at Duxford

Think of a military museum, and most people’s images will be of row upon row of cases, full of medals, uniforms, weapons, and overly-deferential tributes to a regiments old boys. And, frankly, rather boring to most people.

There are good reasons for how this situation came about. Most regimental or corps museums were established and cared for by the Regiment in question. Partly to preserve their espirit-du-corps, and to provide new recruits with a sense of the units special heritage. Whats more, usually the managers, curators, even shop cashiers are ex-army. Whilst the old-boys network of giving old soldiers a job is admirable, it often means that a museum has a very narrow outlook that is one-way, and does not take into acount any wider thinking, or do enough to meet the public halfway. Any museum needs to be fully aware of the society that it is trying to engage with. It is no longer enough to put up displays then sniff that people dont look at them. Over-protective and possessive curators are by no means limited to military museums, but the military-civilian distinction blurs matters further.

But now the priority has changed. With a real need to educate and inform the wider public about the role of the military, it is no longer enough to simply put objects in a case and let people look at them. They need to be interepreted, brought to life. And in the digital age, when childen are used to wiis, xboxes and iphones, there is a whole range of technology out there to enthuse and entertain.

The brand new Airborne Assault Museum at Duxford is a great example. The old Airborne Forces museum in Aldershot had a fine collection, but was in a very off-putting location. By the time the Paras moved to Colchester it was definitely showing its age. Not only that, but it was a Regimental museum in every sense of the word – here was a museum that held an internationally important collection of objects and documents, but effectively barriered them off from anyone looking at them.

When the site at Aldershot was sold, a real chance for change came up. And the solution was bold – why not find a truly accessible site? why does a regimental museum have to be at the HQ? The chosen site, the Imperial War Museum’s outpost at Duxford, was ideal – a complementary focus on war in the air, thousands of visitors a year, and a world renowned site.

The museum itself is revolutionary too. It takes the old, proud elements of a regimental museum, and combines them with the modern, technological strengths of a ‘civilian’ museum. But most importantly, the emphasis is on the relationship between the history and the visitor, both in participation and thought. It more than does its bit for informing the public about the role of Airborne Forces.

Several other military museums have gone this way, and not before time. Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich, and the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford are examples of forward thinking, succesful military museums. But there are many more museums out there that probably havent changed in decades. Which is really sad, as there are probably legions of stories waiting to be told, and thousands of visitors waiting to be inspired. Many of them are staffed by volunteers, who must be admired.

The problem is an ideological one, that faces all museums. Are museums there to keep and protect, or to engage and involve? As it is our history, our military history, and us that the armed forces need to support them, the focus should be primarily on the public, without whom no museum could survive.

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