The famous ‘Yomper’ statue on Southsea Seafront is a memorial to the average, un-named Royal Marine. As iconic a monument as it is, it is perhaps symbolic of our understanding of military history – we worship the Regiment, and medal winners and famous battles, but do we actually know anything much about the men themselves? Now, thanks to a new exhibition at the Royal Marines Museum, members of the public can find out about the stories behind these remarkable men.
Yesterday I went and had a look round ‘more than a name’, the new exhibition at the Royal Marines Museum in Portsmouth. I think its a very snappy name, and it describes the concept very well. As the Museum’s Archivist and Librarian Matthew Little explained, the idea is to try and dig beyond the names of former Royal Marines, and look at their stories. And their are some fascinating stories too. A Royal Marine aviator, A WW2 DCM and MM, and stories of commandos and ship service. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a display of kitbags, uniforms and other Royal Marine memorabilia. What I really like is that it is completely open – not behind glass – and you can actually smell them. I’m sure that displays such as this look so much better than behind glass, and not only that, but the openness is a metaphor for better public access. Obviously given my background in researching ordinary servicemen, I found the exhibition very interesting and right up my street.
The Heritage Lottery Fund are notoriously cagey about funding capital projects that do not have any visible impact for the taxpaying visitor.The aims of this project are very much about access – both by showing the history of individuals who have served as Royal Marines, and improving the Museum’s archives to aid access. Encouragingly, the Exhbition has promoted many visitors to donate items to the Museum’s collection. As Matt explained, many visitors tend to assume that their ancestor’s documents are not of any interest, as they ‘didn’t do much’. But that’s exactly the point, we want to know exactly what the average bootneck was up to. If you put together the experiences of hundreds of these men, you can paint a pretty interesting picture. And who knows what objects unsuspecting people have got lurking in their attics?
Matt also showed me around the Museum’s archives, which is not something that many military museums are as open about! The Museum holds a wealth of documents – mainly consisting of official documents that are not held at the National Archives, such as course records and maps. The museum also have a large number of large scale technical drawings of Landing Craft, which although might be pretty mundane to many of us, to modelmakers they are gold dust. Matt also explained that the Archives are very organic, as current serving Marines are encouraged to donate items, and to record their experiences for posterity. An example which might seem pretty run of the mill is that of combat boots. In the Falklands British boots were so bad that men went down with Trench Foot. This led to an improvement in boots soon after, but then when British forces deployed to Oman for exercises in 2001 Desert boots melted. Those are the official versions, but what do the men on the ground, the men who wore them, have to say about it?
Projects such as this do represent a seismic shift for military museums. Traditionally regimental shrines, they are having to change their approaches, in a climate of budget cuts to the military. Not only that, but museums have changed in recent years, and visitors are more demanding about what they seek to do in their spare time. Putting a bunch of objects in a display case with some rudimentary labels might have been sufficient twenty years ago, but in 2012 we have to do more. And I applaud the Royal Marines Museum for their work. I can remember visiting years ago when the museum as focussed very much on the generals, the great and the good, battles, ships and drawers full of medals, but not much in terms of everyday service, and ‘real’ people. Whereas now, I think the museum incorporates the best of both worlds.