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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.