Tag Archives: National Army Museum

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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MOD reviews support for Army Museums

English: Infantry of the British Army recruiti...

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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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