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‘new museum are(nt) rubbish’

It’s been really interesting, over the past few years, visiting newly redeveloped museums. And even more interesting reading the various reviews.

Lets face it, we all like a good moan. And even more, we like to try and knock down something thats new or different – we all think that we could do better. But it almost seems to be an assumption among many people that if something is new that it must inherently be worse. Cue cries of ‘they’ve ruined it!’

Criticism can be a particular problem in areas that are often very insular or based around long-held traditions, such as military museums. Often regimental museums, for example, are the preserve of a small number of retired senior officers – tribal elders – who get a position on the museum committee once they reach a certain rank, and have spent most of their lives in the military. It is understandable that people who have existed within a military environment stick with what they know. But, as the military shrinks, so will the number of potential visitors if the scope of the museum is limited. And with government funding contracting, it is a case of adapt or die. Aside from funding, surely military museums also have a role in promoting the role of the military within society, and increasing awareness, advocacy and support for the armed forces covenant?

Visitors can become very attached to a particular museum, display or object in terms of the when they first saw it, and struggle to accept that anything else could possibly be better. We like what we know and know what we like, after all. The removal of the blitz experience from the Imperial War Museum was greeted with much criticism, yet the same display was much criticised when it was first installed.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that many enthusiasts and specialists fail to understand or accept that a museum – or any other institution for that matter – does not exist just for them. Ownership is on thing, but suffocating is quite another. I cannot help but feel that a lot of specialists resent anyone else playing with their train set. I struggle to understand that – if you really are an enthusiast about a subject, you should be glad about the thought of it being shared with more people, and new people getting the opportunity to enjoy it as much as you have.

I think that part of the problem is that museums, on the whole, are not very good at why the have made the changes that they have. The museum jam-packed full of objects for a small number of enthusiasts to gaze at lovingly has got very little in terms of impact or effect to argue for it. Some museums that have been criticised for supposedly putting less objects back on display were actually re-displaying more objects than were there before. But, interestingly, they did not communicate this.

Resilience matters. A museum that atracts more people – especially from outside its core audience – will inevitably make more money. Therefore its very existence is assured, and it can look to continue developing. But a museum that preaches only to the converted will not only be in a precarious position financially, but its impact will be miniscule. Specialist and enthusiast audiences will almost always be small.

And, put simply, the goalposts have moved since the old days. And rightly so. With the advent of Heritage Lottery funding came a responsibility to think about the very people who were funding heritage through their lottery playing. And with greater scrutiny of public finances, taxpayers are more demanding of – and deserve – an awareness of what their hard earned taxes are being spent on. Museums just do not exist any more for their own gratification or for their core audiences.

Another aspect of modern museums is that the visitor experience is given much more emphasis now. Some of the ‘holy grail’ museums that are invoked with misty eyes were dark and dingy jumble sale-alikes, difficult to navigate, inaccesible, had poor cafes and just weren’t much fun to look round. And I say that as an enthusiast and a specialist. Quite rightly, visitors want their spare time to be spent in ennjoyment, not migraines.

Nobody ever tries to wreck a museum. For a start, if you want to wreck a museum you’re really working in the wrong job, and secondly most curators really don’t posess that kind of malevolent power. But most curators are passionate about showing their collections to as many people as possible, and to people who may not normally think about coming to their museum. If that is a bad thing, then you really should think about why.

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What is Military History Now?

I’ve been watching some of the debates centred on military history with great interest. The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres (or is it Paschendaele?!) and the release of the film Dunkirk have inspired much navel-gazing and hand-wringing from military historians.

I think it’s fair to say that my thoughts on military history have evolved somewhat over the years. My interest was piqued at a very young age by my family history. Of course I went through the watching-war-films phase, and the button-counting and badge-checking and predictable-self-righteous-indignation-when-something-was-wrong phase.

But over time I think – and hope – that my motivation for ‘doing’ history has grown up somewhat. Accuracy is great, but what does it achieve? Yes, it is misleading if things are wrong, but is it possible to worry far too much about things that are details, and completely forget about the bigger picture? That is, what people are thinking and feeling, and what the bigger lessons of conflict are?

I guess I am quite lucky in that I have been ‘doing’ my history in quite a public way, and I get to interact with a lot of ‘normal’ people (even if that has involved writing books that are longer than a PhD thesis but most ‘proper’ historians would not lower themselves to cite as a source…)  But it has reallt reinforced my belief that preaching to the converted on the minutiae is one thing, but making a real difference to people who are not enthusiasts is the real coal face of history.

The more I have worked in public history, the more I have become more and more convinced over time that echo chamber history is virtually pointless – what purpose does it really serve? Recent events – Brexit, for one – suggests to me that history, and especially military history – has failed in terms of its broader role in society. Or, at the very least, history has not exactly covered itself in glory.

If the most important thing about a war film, for you, is that one of the cap badges is wrong or the repro battledress is the wrong shade of khaki, personally I think that you’re kind of missing the point. Anal retentiveness really will have overtaken the bigger issues. It reminds me of an account I read of the BEF in 1939-40. Apparently Lord Gort issued numerous orders regarding uniforms and standards of dress, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Guardsman. Yet sartorial elegance did not stop the debacle that led to Dunkirk.

I think the crux of all history is that what you do is affected very much by why you do it. If your primary interest is checking cap badges and counting buttons and then getting smugly outraged when not everything is completely right, chances are you’re probably less worried about what effect your work is going to have on people. Which does lead me to wonder if some historians really aren’t all that fussed about what effect their work has. After all, there are plenty of supposedly influential academic tomes that retail at £80 and have probably sold four or five copies, and can only be found in impenetrable libraries somewhere. What effect is that kind of history really having on anyone? Yet I have also seen plenty of sneering posts on twitter bemoaning arts projects, interpretive dance, and well, anything that isn’t either a book or a lecture. Aside from showing a complete lack of understanding of the modern world and the potential to reach new audiences, it seems possible to me that many enthusiasts would not be unhappy if militaty history stays in a position where they could bemoan the lack of interest of the general population, but they can also also smother the field so that said population are less likely to become interested in it. Schrodingers geek, you might describe it as.

To put it quite bluntly, I started out on the path of military history because of my family history. That family history tells me quite unequivocally that war is pretty awful, and really, isn’t that the whole point of military history, letting people know that war is a god-awful business? To be quite blunt, aside from making sure that something does not look completely ridiculous, I’m really not all that fussed about counting badges. However, if something I write or a display that I put together makes people go away and think something or feel something, that’s an outcome I can feel proud about.

The centenary of the Great War does feel like a missed opportunity in some respects. Not, I hasten to add, to just re-energise interest, but for military history as a concept to take a deeper look in the mirror. Maybe the nature of military history in 2017 is the problem. Caught between the ivory towers of academic military history on the one hand and the geekier end of the spectrum, there is more than ever a need for a middle way that takes into account the nature of the world we live in today, and the needs of the people who live in it.

For that to happen all parts of the field would need to take a hard look at themselves. It would require less factionalism between sectors, and academics, museum professionals, enthusiasts, tour guides and broadcasters. Getting away from secret societies and closed shop conferences and journals that won’t acknowledge your existence if you are not a PhD. Ironically, I think these kind of factors that have been in evidence during recent debates, are also part of the problem. And, even more ironically, military historians are showing signs of fighting todays problems with yesterdays tactics.

But most of all, thinking long and hard about why we do military history, and what it is all for.

 

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HNoMS Helge Ingstad


HNoMS Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian Navy Otto Svedrup class Frigate entering Portsmouth last week escorting the USS George HW Bush.

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USS Phillipine Sea


USS Phillipine Sea, a Ticonderoga class cruiser of the US Navy, called in at Portsmouth last weekend escorting the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush.

It’s on it’s way home after a week-long exercise. Time for a paint job I think!

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Book Signing – Saturday 2 August 2014

Hi all!

I know that it’s been a long time – I’m still recovering after D-Day 70! – but just to let you all know that I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth this coming Saturday, 2 August, between 12 and 2pm.

See you there!

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IT Band = History?

Well it seems like weeks since I’ve last updated here – in fact, its been months!

After getting frustrated with the lack of progress with my IT Band, I finally bit the bullet and went to see Cliff at Kings Road Clinic in Southsea for some physio. After a session of ultrasound, heat treatment and deep tissue massage, all aimed at breaking up the scar tissue, I could barely walk! But a couple of days after I could run, and run more comfortably. Then, the next couple of weeks I ran 9.2, 13.1 and 11.2 miles respectively. Considering I had been running 3 miles a week – if that – then getting into double figures again was a significant achievement. And the progress has carried on since, apart from a few quiet weeks due to work commitments. I’ve been running more comfortably, and further, and faster – all gradually. A couple of weeks ago I ran 6.8 miles for my long run, and I’ve done a couple of 5ks at 23:50ish, which considering my PB is 20:12, isn’t bad after three months injured.

I’ve been doing a lot of strengthening work to try and help out with the muscles that have allowed my IT Band to get weak – abs, hip, glutes etc. And so far it seems to be working. I do squats and planks every night, along with a few other random exercises thrown in for variety. Cliff gave me some stretches to do. I’m sure many of you will be familiar with the lying down IT Band stretch – as it says, you lie down, raise one leg up with your feet near your other knee, then cross it over your body and use your hand to apply some stretch. Doing this little and often – 3 to 4 times a day – has definitely helped to stretch my Bands.

I’m almost fit enough to start running with Pompey Joggers again – I’ll probably start with one of the slower groups and do 5 miles or so at 8-9 min/mile pace. All being well I’m getting back to fitness just in time for the Lakeside 5k series over the summer, the run leg of the Portsmouth Triathlon (doing it as a team with my dad and brother) and the Hampshire Road Race League which kicks off again in September, with the Overton 5 and Victory 5.

Early tomorrow morning I’m going over to France to take part in the Courant de la Liberte 10k in Caen, as part of the Portsmouth team in a challenge against runners from our twin city Caen, and their twin city Wurzburg in Germany. It’s my first race since early March, so I’m not sure how I’ll get on – my PB is 42:48, but I won’t get anywhere near that – I hope to run under 48:00 at least, and 45:00 would be a real achievement.

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Military History: is there anything new to learn?

Last weekend I spent a very interesting couple of days working at our D-Day 70 Community Conference. As well as a visit to Southwick House which served as Eisenhower, Montgomery and Ramsay’s headquarters in the days prior to D-Day (I’d never been before), we also had talks from a range of different speakers. And hearing Dr Simon Trew from the War Studies Department at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst talking about whether there is anything new to learn about D-Day really got me thinking.

My first love in military history was – and still is – Arnhem. For family reasons the airborne battle in Holland in September 1944 has always been very close to me, and I’ve spent years poring over every book I can possibly find on the subject. Even when I have been working on radically different topics, Arnhem has always been there in the background. It’s always been an ambition of mine to write a book about Arnhem, but at the same time I’ve always been hesitant. It’s been written about so extensively that there are literally hundreds of books on Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. There are a wide plethora of specialist books on particular units or individuals, but my biggest bug bear has always been the sheer number of general books on the battle. There are so many, to the extent that with many of them, you could swap the authors names around, and the texts appear to be almost identical in content. Very few of them offer any kind of new research or new insight. Why would I want to wade into that historiography, just to cash in? No, I like to feel that if I am going to spend 2+ years of my life working on a book, that it will contribute something new to people’s understanding.

Hence I’ve left Arnhem well alone. But hearing Simon’s talk about the state of ‘1944’ historiography really got my thinking. And I have to agree, that despite the apparent extensive coverage of the subject, if you look beyond the surface, there is still plenty of work to be done. Very little of the Arnhem historiography is ground-breaking. Surely there must be some documents out there, at the National Archives perhaps, that have not been looked at? Or, are there assumptions in the historiography that need re-visiting? For example, has it occured to anyone that there is no credible evidence that General Browning’s of-quoted ‘Bridge too far’ was ever said? Can more work be done on the large number of oral histories and personal testimonies of other ranks involved in the battle?

One immediate area that occurs to me is the time period between 6 June and 17 September 1944. The British airborne landings in Normandy were an almost complete success, in particular the Pegasus Bridge and Merville Battery operations. How, just over three months later, did the same planning staffs manage to oversee a debacle like Arnhem? Many of you may know the well-known line in ‘A Bridge too Far’ when General Browning refers to fifteen airborne operations being cancelled since D-Day. How much do we know about these plans? Very little, it seems – some of them do not even seem to have received a code name. But they must have generated planning documents, and references in unit war diaries. Do these planned operations explain how Operation Market Garden transpired?

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