London: The National Army Museum

After being closed for several years for a complete revamp, the National Army Museum has recently re-opened. Having never visited the old museum, I can’t say how this new version compares, but I can at least give you my thoughts (of which there are many) on the new museum.

  

I should confess that I have a bit of a history with the National Army Museum. I very briefly volunteered there a couple of years ago, but compared to the work I did on the local history project I also volunteered on, it felt like the stuff they were giving me to do was simply busywork, and I couldn’t stand working in an open plan office. So I quit after about three weeks, but in my short time there, I had gotten to look at a plan of the new museum, so I had some idea of what to expect.

  

Sadly, the grand vision I had viewed didn’t seem to reflect the reality. First of all, there was the museum building itself. It is not attractive, but under ordinary circumstances, this might have gone unnoticed. However, the museum is located right next door to the stately Royal Hospital Chelsea (see above images), which in addition to being huge, is also very easy on the eyes (and contains a number of intriguing sights that are visible from outside the gates, including a statue of a Chelsea pensioner raising his cane in the air, as though he’s about to go Andrew Jackson on somebody’s ass, a cemetery with a tombstone featuring a carving of a helmet from a suit of medieval armour, a bench with a sculpture of a Chelsea pensioner dozing on it, an adorable statue of an elephant dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, and of course the pensioners themselves, who still wear those distinctive long red coats when they’re out and about), so the museum’s ugly modern boxiness is glaring in comparison. Clearly, any renovations only took place on the museum’s interior.

  

And unfortunately, the interior didn’t immediately catch the eye either. While I did enjoy the statue of a desert rat that I spotted on the lower level, and there are bright colours in some of the upstairs galleries, the thing directly in my eye line upon entering was the museum’s shop, which was small and drab (the museum is free, so you would think they’d make more of an effort in the shop to try to bring in some revenue). The museum is spread out over 3-5 floors (depends whether you count sub-floors as their own floors, or whether the cafe, which was on its own level, counts as a floor), but the only actual gallery on the ground floor is the “Soldier Gallery.” This is one of the galleries I vaguely recalled reading about when I was a volunteer, the conceit behind it being that people enter through one of two gates, based on whether or not they think they could be a soldier, learn more about the life of a soldier in the gallery, and then have to go through the same gates at the end of the gallery, so they can see if their answers changed.

  

I think this probably worked better in concept than in execution, because I was not overly impressed with this gallery. The most immediately obvious problem was with the appearance of the space itself. There was very dim lighting in here, which gave everything in the gallery a weird and unpleasant yellowish-brown tinge.  The other problem was what I perceived as the dumbing-down of the museum. Most of the text in here was fairly limited, and included quotes from soldiers on these huge, large-print signs. Which I suppose is nice for people with visual impairments, but it made me feel like I was walking through the museum equivalent of a picture-book (not knocking picture-books (especially Frog and Toad, who are the subjects of my latest tattoo), I just expect a little more text in a museum that wants to attract adults as well as children). They had clearly tried to introduce a fair number of interactive elements, but the trouble was that most of them were being repaired, or were in use by the many, many children also visiting that day.

  

The other issue was that though this section had a number of fascinating objects, the museum appeared to be doing their best to hide them!  Instead of being an artefact-driven exhibit, this was image driven, and all of the actual artefacts were shunted off into ill-lit cases around the gallery, so photographs, computer screens, and those huge text bubbles could take centre-stage.

  

This was a real shame, because among the object cases, I found stuff like a penny that had saved a soldier’s life by taking the impact of a bullet during the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s shaving mirror, the actual frost-bitten fingers and toes of a soldier who’d lost them whilst climbing Everest, the taxidermied body of Crimean Tom (a cat from the Crimean War), and the leg bones of a soldier who’d had his leg amputated and saved the bones so he could be buried with them when he died (so I have no idea why they’re in this museum). Unfortunately, all these awesome things were accompanied by the bare minimum of text, and in many instances, I had to hunt to find even that, because all the information was placed to the sides of the cases, with no numbering put on the objects, so you had to squint at the pictures to match things up. Not an easy feat given the poor lighting, and objects like the leg bones and bullet, for example, were hidden away in a hallway so dark that I’m pretty sure they didn’t want visitors to actually notice them at all.

  

Progressing upstairs, we entered the art gallery, which despite also being very dark (perhaps more understandable in this case to preserve the paintings, though most art museums manage to have brighter lights than this), was probably the best gallery in the museum, because it felt the most like a traditional museum gallery. Also, there were a lot of really cool paintings, including many from the First World War, and even a couple from the American Revolution, which I was even more interested to see than usual, because I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent Valiant Ambition at the time. No complaints about this gallery!

  

However, it segued into a gallery about the history of the British Army, and there were more issues here. For something that was meant to tell us the history of the army, it was remarkably light on actual history. There was a timeline at the start, but it petered out somewhere around James II, and I never really learned how the army evolved into what it is today (and all the difficult-to-decipher pie charts on the wall (they used too many damn colours!) didn’t really help matters). Most of the exhibit was dominated by these cases full of mannequins wearing various regimental uniforms (a small child was terrified by them, and refused to approach them, which I am mean enough to have found funny), but only the type of uniform was listed on the case; for additional information, you had to turn to a computer screen.

  

The same applied to the artefact cases on the back wall, only they were even worse. These didn’t have an object label of any kind, it was ALL on the computer screens. This is the same issue I had with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, but I’ll repeat myself, because that was a while ago. While trying to boost interactivity with touchscreens is great in theory, the problem is that if you only have one screen for each display, only one person can look at it at a time, and if they hog it, as people are wont to do, you won’t get to learn anything. Also, the contents of each case were divided between a couple of different touchscreens, and it wasn’t always clear which screen you needed to scroll through to get the information you wanted. I can’t help but feel that a much more sensible solution would be to put basic information right on the cases, like a normal, old-school museum, and have additional information available on touchscreens, for those who want it. That way everyone will at least have some idea of what they’re looking at, and will have the option of learning more if they choose to do so.

  

There were two galleries on the top floor, “Society and the Army,” and “Battle.” I preferred “Society”, because it was the only space in the museum that was well-lit (you could actually read all the labels, and everything had a label! Brilliant!), and I have to confess that getting to try on a royal guard outfit, and looking at that hilarious Sgt. Potato poster didn’t hurt either. I’m not quite sure if they did enough to show how the army impacts the rest of society when there’s not a war on, but it was a better attempt than most of the other galleries.

 

“Battle,” I feel, was mostly aimed at people who really like looking at heavy-duty weaponry and already know a fair bit about how those weapons work, because the labels were fairly basic and left me in the dark (literally, because we were back to the poorly lit galleries again), and that’s what 70% of the cases in here contained, but there was some cool stuff in the pre-WWI sections, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars case, because it contained not only the amputation saw used to hack off the leg of the Earl of Uxbridge (he of the famous (possibly apocryphal) anecdote whereupon he remarked to Wellington after being shot, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg,” and Wellington replied, “By God sir, so you have.” Uxbridge also apparently remained “composed” throughout the anaesthetic-less operation, only remarking that the saw seemed rather blunt) and a bloody glove used to staunch the flow during his amputation, but also the skeleton of one of Napoleon’s actual horses! And, this was one place where there was a brief mention of British atrocities committed during various imperial wars (which otherwise pretty much went unmentioned). There were also a number of activities that looked really fun here, such as a drum where you could practice various cadences, a cut-out tank to crawl into that appeared to have some kind of video game inside, and some muskets where you could see how fast you could reload and shoot ten bullets, but yet again, these were all being monopolised by children, or, in the case of the guns, not even working.

  

The final gallery was “Insight,” located in the lower ground floor. If it hadn’t been for the desert rat sculpture also down there, I’d say don’t waste your time – it was pretty lame (I don’t even have any photos from it, the ones below are from “Battle”). It mainly just consisted of maps on the walls showing where British Army bases are located around the world (I didn’t even realise this at first, because it wasn’t explained until halfway through the exhibit) and a handful of objects, and again, very crappy lighting (the museum’s main decorative scheme, I guess).

  

Because I hadn’t visited the National Army Museum in its previous form, I can’t say for sure if it’s actually worse now than it was before, but I strongly suspect that may be the case, given how much I enjoy an old-fashioned military museum (see the Winchester museums, the Army Medical Services Museum, et al, for evidence of this). I think it would have been so much nicer if they had a couple highly interactive, child-friendly galleries, but then kept a couple old-fashioned galleries, with decent lighting and labels, for all the amazing objects in their collection, so that people who wanted to could actually admire and learn something about these objects in peace. While I understand that interactivity is what packs in the crowds these days, having interactive elements at the expense of actual history not only dumbs down a museum – it also makes it lose part of its essence.  If the National Army Museum is an example of where most museums are headed, then that is truly a depressing thought, since I learned remarkably little here. 4/5 solely for the awesomeness of the objects in their collection, but only 2/5 for how they were presented, so I guess 3/5 overall. With the army’s fascinating history (which you wouldn’t know from visiting this museum), and all the money undoubtedly poured into this, this museum should be so, so much better than it is.

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10 comments

  1. Good grief, I can see what you mean about hiding the good stuff. I was perplexed by the taxidermied cat in the “Keeping Busy” display (I thought it was an odd choice for a random prop) until you mentioned Crimean Tom. But I’m glad you found the frost-bitten fingers and toes – I was pretty excited to see those. And I loved the leg bone story – well, actually both leg bone stories but especially the first one that was meant to be buried with the soldier. It has all the makings for a decent tale about a ghost who hops the halls looking for his missing leg.

    1. YES! I love that idea for a ghost story (though if I were him, I’d probably hang out in the much nicer Chelsea Pensioner digs next door)! And I guess I should have specified that the cat was indeed Crimean Tom, but I’m glad you figured it out anyway.

  2. Any museum that contains random body parts with cool stories is at least a marginal success in my opinion. I just can’t get the image of these soldiers bringing their bits back home with them, and the look on Mom or wife’s face as they unpack their rucksack and carefully lay out a leg or a toe. “Hey hon? Could you put this in the back closet for me?” *Hands body part to significant other. I know it makes me a little odd, but I love it.

    1. I know I’ve said this exact thing before (also in regard to random body parts), but I do like the way you think! We clearly share the same macabre enthusiasm for this sort of thing! I actually once knew a guy who had to have the tip of his finger removed (he accidentally slammed it in a car door, no dramatic story I’m afraid), and he brought it home with him and kept it in the freezer. The first time he cut his nails after the accident, he pulled out freezer fingertip and cut the nails on it too! Though I doubt the poor frostbite guy was able to do the same thing, since it was ALL his fingers and toes.

  3. I love how Diverting Journeys seems to always be looking for preserved body parts – even though that is exactly what I would like to avoid! Your reviews are great, even when you are reviewing places I probably wouldn’t ever want to visit.

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