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.