Balcombe, West Sussex: The Wings Museum

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I seem to keep bringing up Damian Lewis on the blog these days (I mean c’mon, codpieces!), but yeah, one of the main reasons I checked out the Wings Museum (“where history comes alive”) was because part of Band of Brothers was filmed inside the C-47 Dakota in the museum, and I welcomed the opportunity to sit in the same place Damian Lewis did (or, as I more crudely put it at the time, “My ass has touched where Damian Lewis’s ass touched!”).  But Wings advertised more attractions than simply plonking your butt down on the same seats as famous people.  They also promised recovered airframes set up into crash site dioramas, a real Anderson shelter to explore, the opportunity to own a small piece of downed aircraft of your very own, and many other displays inside the draughty hangar-style building.

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The Wings Museum seemed to assume a certain degree of enthusiasm for military history (the volunteer at the admissions desk even asked my boyfriend if he was an “enthusiast,” which led to a rather awkward silence.  Also, why did he just assume that I wasn’t the enthusiast?  I mean, I’m not, but he didn’t know that), as I guess most people aren’t willing to drive out to a hangar in the middle of nowhere and part with 8 quid if they’re not really into this stuff.  Truthfully, as I am not really into this stuff (nor is my boyfriend, obviously), some of the very lengthy descriptions of missions and all the names and numbers of various aircraft were lost on me, but it was a large building with a lot of crap in it, so there was still plenty to enjoy.

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The museum contains quite a few salvaged Nazi aircraft parts (as those were a large proportion of what was crashing on British soil) and some uniforms and things; I definitely understand the importance of making sure both the Allied and Axis Powers were represented (including some things from the Pacific Theatre), since despite the focus on aviation, one of the museum’s stated goals is to tell the story of World War II.  However, the process of the actual “telling” could use some work, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many spelling and grammatical errors in one place.  I get that they are volunteer run (and only open on weekends), but you’d think one of the volunteers could spell properly.  The use of the contraction “it’s” instead of the possessive “its” is a personal pet peeve, but a common enough mistake, I suppose.  But given that they’re dealing with military history, they should at least know how to spell “bail.”  You “bail out” of an aircraft, you “bale” hay, got it?  Same thing with “hale” and “hail.”  Homophones: learn how to use them! (And for that matter, the building the museum is housed in is called a hangar; not a “hanger” as their website would have you believe.) ETA: I’ve been doing a bit of research since writing this, and while it seems that “bail out” is the correct American usage, apparently in other English speaking countries, both variants are accepted spellings, so I’ll give them a pass on that.  However, my point about the spelling errors still stands, as there’s really no excuse for the incorrect “it’s” or their misspelling of hangar.

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Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of the way, in fairness to the museum, some of the stories were very interesting, if you took the time to persevere through the errors.  There was one about a man diffusing some notoriously tricky type of German bomb in a tunnel that ended with him emerging from this tunnel “looking and smelling worse than the dirtiest London tramp,” and an extremely lengthy, but fascinating account of a man in a Japanese POW camp being fed on a few lumps of rice a day.

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And there were some hand-painted bomber jackets belonging to various pilots.  I remember seeing a really large display of these at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum many years ago, and I’ve always liked them (they may have played a small part in my becoming a punk as a teenager, since punks like to paint their leather jackets too, but because I was never any good at painting I just ended up wearing an old one that my high school boyfriend’s friend had painted with an Exploited skull.  It was well done, perhaps too much so, since it ended up getting stolen out of a car when I was at a punk show, with all my money and IDs in the pockets).

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On a more serious note, they had a small hut devoted to the Holocaust (that we didn’t take pictures of, as it seemed disrespectful), which covered a camp called DORA, where prisoners were forced to manufacture airplane parts and other things for the Nazis.  It came complete with moving illustrations done by what I believe was one of the survivors (though I’m not quite positive about that, and the information isn’t on their website so I can’t check).  There were also memorials throughout the museum to the pilots who lost their lives in the war.

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I was pretty keen to get into that Band of Brothers plane, and we took plenty of pictures in there (though as usual, I look terrible in all of them).  There was a video of the relevant episode playing on a small TV, and you were free to explore the plane (and yes, plant your ass on all the seats), so I enjoyed myself.  It was nice that the museum wasn’t very crowded so I had plenty of time to sit everywhere without being interrupted.

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And there were all those promised dioramas of aircraft in various stages of disrepair, pleasingly made into scenes with the use of (often hilarious) mannequins (I hope this isn’t construed as being too flippant, since I am aware that some of the pilots may have died in these crashes, but the museum’s approach overall seemed to be an interesting mix of the sombre and lighthearted).  I think I may have actually enjoyed some of the more mundane objects in the museum more though, like the bell shown towards the start of the post with FDR, Churchill, and Stalin moulded on it, and the sake cup pictured below that somehow survived Hiroshima.  To me, artefacts like that tell more of a story than an enormous hunk of rusting metal (though I’m not knocking the hunks of metal, if that’s your thing).

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There’s also a vintage radio hut parked outside, which one of the volunteers led me into as I was obviously cold (it was not a warm day, and the building was unheated, so it was basically just as cold as outside), the radio hut being compact and heated, and a place to learn more about antique radios than I ever wanted to.  They had a radio in there from Bletchley Park that was used in the filming of The Imitation Game (which I still haven’t seen, so I can’t say for sure whether Benny touched it, but at any rate, the opportunity to touch it myself never presented itself, so my hand was not where his hand was).

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They did indeed have an array of aircraft parts for sale, for prices ranging from 50p up to about 50 quid, so we ended up with our own bit of twisted metal for a pound, which isn’t a bad deal.  I mean, it’s pretty clear the museum could use the money (maybe to re-do the signs after correcting them?), and I could see that the place was a labour of love, even if I’m not a military history buff.  Though I wasn’t completely captivated by the museum, there were plenty of things that caught my interest, and it was nice reading some of the stories of men who’d been there (including one pilot from Lakewood, Ohio!), so I have no regrets about going (especially venturing inside that neat plane).  My mother loves planes and stuff, and I spent a lot of time being dragged around various aviation museums as a kid, so I have some grounds for comparison; while Wings is obviously nowhere near the level of Wright-Patterson or even the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, for a small museum without much (any?) funding, I think they did a decent job.  But while I love the quirkiness, that shouldn’t come at the expense of correct spelling, so I’ll give it 3/5.

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15 comments

  1. I had a sense of deja vue here then remembered we had the punctuation conversation before and you mentioned the hanger/hangar faux pas. No excuse! Even if they are volunteers, they can’t all be illiterate, surely?

    1. Yes we did, because it was right after I went to Wings, and I was freshly annoyed! As far as the volunteers go, well, you’d probably be surprised. I’m a volunteer myself, and some of the things I’ve seen other volunteers put on our website really make me wonder. Not only spelling mistakes, but things like a picture showing someone using a computer labelled as being “circa 1860s.” And Pride and Prejudice being referred to as a “Restoration era comedy.”

      1. I do, but we have thousands of entries on our website, so I can only do so much! As far as these museums go, I really don’t know why someone can’t do some rudimentary proofreading before they have a poster made. I keep bringing it up in the hope that someday one of these places will take the hint and make the necessary corrections.

      2. I wasn’t meaning you, it shouldn’t be a volunteer’s responsibility to keep things right’ I just thought there must be some paid staff who had some kind of vested interest in making sure it was correct. I’ve been on both sides of the table.

  2. Did you know exactly where Damian Lewis sat or did you sit on all the seats? Also, is that a sea mine I could see in one or two of your photographs?

    1. I sat on all the seats! I couldn’t tell exactly where he was sitting and I wasn’t taking any chances! No one else was around, so it was easy enough for me to slide my butt along each row of seats without someone looking at me like I was mental (except my boyfriend, but he already knows I’m weird)! And yes, I’m pretty sure that is a sea mine.

      1. Good work! I sat down in the Reading Room of the British Museum once just so I could say I sat in the general area where Karl Marx once brooded over some political tome or other, but situations in which you can use that anecdote are few and far between. …and sea mines give me the creeps (more than any other form of ordinance). I’m not sure why 🙂

  3. How did I miss this post?! I’m with you on Damian Lewis. And I would love to have that “Poisonality Kids” jacket – it appeals to my inner Bowery Boy.

    1. It’s a good jacket. Actually, now you’ve got me thinking, and I’m upset everything on the Sacred Cow was enclosed in glass, because I would have so planted my ass where FDR’s was. I have too many weird historical crushes I think.

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