Dorchester, Dorset: The Keep Military Museum

Of course, Dorset wasn’t all just knobs. I also found time to visit some museums. The glorious, castle-like Keep Military Museum is situated rather incongruously in the middle of Dorchester, sandwiched between the much less attractive modern barracks, and a large pay-and-display car park (and a note on the car park; there is a small, free car park behind the museum for visitors, so you don’t need to pay to park unless there’s no space in the museum lot). When I was looking for museums to visit in Dorchester (which is where the Knob Festival took place), the two that stood out to me were the Keep and the Dorset County Museum; sorely tempted though I was by the Crystal Palace style gallery at the Dorset County Museum, the promise of mannequins (and bizarrely, Hitler’s desk) won me over to the Keep in the end (and with each museum charging £7 for admission, I certainly wasn’t going to visit both!).

  

So, after parting with £7 each, and undergoing a brief interrogation from the admissions desk guy about how I’d heard of the place (he was perfectly nice about it, he was just very anxious to know EXACTLY where I’d heard of them, and apparently “Uh, I just googled ‘museums in Dorchester,’ and you popped up,” wasn’t specific enough) Marcus and I were ready to enter the Keep. However, we’d arrived at exactly the same time as a group of elderly military enthusiasts (I think they may have been veterans) who were being given a tour of the museum, so one of the volunteers suggested that we start with one of the upper floors first so we didn’t get stuck behind them, which was much appreciated. Thus, we began the ascent up one of the spiral staircases running through the Keep, and emerged on the first floor.

  

This floor contained a chronological history of the Devon and Dorset Regiments, which are the regiments that the museum is dedicated to (being located in Dorset and all). Most of the local regiments were formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, so some of the earliest artefacts were from the American Revolution. As I mentioned in the National Army Museum post, I read Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, about Benedict Arnold, not too long ago, so I was in the perfect position to appreciate all the John Andre stuff in their collection. John Andre was a British Army officer who was sent to collect maps from Benedict Arnold after Arnold decided to turn traitor; however, he was captured by American militiamen on his way back to British lines, and because General Clinton had promised to protect Arnold, he couldn’t exchange Arnold for Andre, so Andre was executed in Arnold’s stead. There’s actually a rather horrible story about how Andre was executed…because he was technically an officer, he was hoping to be executed by firing squad, but because he wasn’t in uniform when he was caught, Washington decided to make an example of him by treating him as a spy, thus executing him by hanging. Andre wasn’t told this until the day of his execution, when he was marched from his cell, and led to the purpose-built gallows. Upon seeing them, his knees buckled, because he thought he was getting the firing squad (hangings back then were still by short drop, so you died of strangulation, which took ages. It was much more prolonged and horrible than firing squad). I felt pretty sick reading this story in Philbrick’s book, and helpfully, the museum provided a small diorama of his hanging (so now I can REALLY visualise it). There was also a lock of Andre’s hair, given by him to Peggy Shippen (Benedict Arnold’s wife, but she and Andre had had a flirtation going before she married Arnold…it’s a long story), and a few more of his possessions.

   

But let’s leave the depressing story of Andre there (lest you feel too bad for him, you should know that he was super snobby, although that doesn’t mean he deserved hanging), and talk about something more cheerful. Like all the dressing up opportunities this museum provides!  As is pretty much a requirement for any museum that talks about WWI, they had a mock-up of some trenches, and one of the rooms had some clothes hanging on a hook, so even though I’m not 100% sure if I should have done so, I obviously put them on and posed (it was a lovely coat too. So big and warm). I also grabbed a helmet and gun in the WWII display (I’ve trimmed my bangs since then! I was in the middle of an attempt to grow them out at the time, but I just couldn’t deal with them covering half my face anymore).

  

We found “Hitler’s desk” up here. It might not even have actually been Hitler’s desk, though it was apparently retrieved from the bunker where Hitler was holed up at the end of the war, so it was certainly at least a Nazi desk (not that that’s really something to brag about). To be honest, I found the information about British rationing way more interesting…I was initially somewhat perturbed to see the tiny amount of cheese I would have been allocated, so was relieved to see that vegetarians were given extra cheese.  I just hope it was a nice mature cheddar or something, rather than the horrible government-grade cheese that I suspect it probably was.

  

The next floor was the medals floor, and really all that can be said about this is “wow, that’s a lot of medals!” In fact, that’s exactly what I said when I saw it, and I had to laugh when another couple came up a minute after we did, and the guy immediately exclaimed, “wow, that’s a lot of medals!”

  

The third floor carried on with the history of the regiments in post-WWII engagements, though there was also a splendid matchstick model of the Keep hidden in the corner. I should mention that most of the labels throughout the museum were written on wooden paddles hanging from the side of each case. There weren’t enough visitors that there was an issue with having to wait to read them, but I do think it might have been easier if labels had actually been put on the cases, rather than having to keep looking back and forth to figure out what each number was. At least there was additional information about everything though, unlike at the NAM.

  

We finally made our way up to the top of the Keep (all the floors of the museum are lift-accessible, but you can only get up to the roof by stairs, unfortunately. Also, if you can’t take the stairs, you sadly miss out on all the military cartoons they have posted on the way up), and its panoramic views of Dorchester. Despite the Keep’s Norman appearance, it was actually only completed in 1879, and rather boringly served as an administrative centre for the Dorsetshire Regiment before being turned into a museum (although soldiers were de-loused in the room inside the turret you can see in the photo on the left, which is kind of interesting). From the top of the Keep, you can see the Little Keep, which was the home of the old militia barracks, completed in 1866, and is still more attractive than the new barracks, but probably wouldn’t meet the modern army’s needs.

  

Since we’d missed the ground floor initially to give the tour group time to pass through, we headed back down there last, and honestly, I’m glad we saw it at the end of our visit, because it was the best part! The mannequins were just fantastic, and there was some pretty cool stuff down here, like a prison cell that soldiers were kept in to await court martial.

  

There was also some fascinating, albeit depressing information about the soldiers who were executed for desertion in WWI (three of them were from the Dorsetshire Regiment, and their stories were told here), traditional army punishments (each more horrible than the last, these included flogging, being made to sit on some kind of wooden “horse” torture device, having your heels somehow forced up to your chin, and a form of water torture that was so painful it made even the toughest men faint. Makes branding seem almost pleasant by comparison), and the difference in the quality of life between 19th century soldiers, and their farmer counterparts (hint: it was much better being a farmer).

  

To end on a more positive note, there was another dressing-up box in a room at the back of the museum, and since no one else was there, I indulged myself again! (I know the hat doesn’t go with the first jacket (and my salute’s a bit crap in the second jacket), but they didn’t have one that did, and I didn’t want to go hat-less. And god, I really need one of those WWI overcoats for myself. SO GOOD.)

Before we went, I read some reviews comparing the Keep to the NAM in London, and they said the two were of similar quality (intended as a compliment). Since these were written before the new NAM opened, it gives me some insight into what the old museum must have been like, and validates my position in my NAM post that the old museum must have been better than the new one in terms of artefact display, because the Keep was pretty damn good about displaying their artefacts, despite the wooden paddle labels that made me feel like I was a pupil in a ye olde one room schoolhouse. Although I didn’t really find much of interest in the medals floor, I get that they’re understandably proud of them and want to display them somewhere (it would help if they explained how the medals were earned, because they only did that in a couple of instances, and I’m sure the stories would be interesting), and on the whole, it was definitely the biggest, as well as one of the better regimental museums I’ve seen, especially the ground and first floors. 3.5/5 for the museum, and they deserve another medal in their massive collection for providing so many superb dressing-up opportunities.

 

 

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4 comments

  1. We saw a really good play last year about 1WW soldiers who were shot for “cowardice” or “desertion”. And by good, I mean harrowing and upsetting but very well done. This year, the (National Theatre of Scotland) followed up with a play about the women left behind. Equally distressing. Love your dressing up!

    1. I can imagine how upsetting that play would be! I tried to read Storms of War by Kate Williamson a couple of years ago, and made the mistake of flipping ahead to see how it ended (with one of the main characters being executed for desertion). Needless to say, I stopped reading then and there. It’s weird, because I’m obviously fascinated by rather grisly things in some contexts (you weren’t wrong about the Semmelweis photos, by the way), but I don’t want it in my fiction. I think because I get too emotionally invested that way, and I just can’t take it. On a cheerier note, the only WWI-themed play I’ve seen was the Wipers Times a few months ago, written by Ian Hislop and based off of his TV docudramedy(?) of the same name, and that was delightful. Funny, but with a few poignant moments.
      I did really enjoy the dressing up, and I think it shows!

  2. As awful and pitiable as it ends, the John Andre story sounds fascinating. Is it my imagination or is he hanging backwards in that diorama?
    I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in that same bang-limbo. I always start off with high hopes that I’ll be able to forge through the mid-growth period but eventually lose patience and get out the scissors.
    Good grief, those rations! I actually got excited when I saw the pound of preserves – though god knows what they were – but spread out over two months? Criminey.
    I agree with you on the wall of medals. It’s like looking at someone’s entire stamp collection. One or two with a backstory would be interesting – confronted with a massed collection just makes me glaze over.

    1. I think he is backwards, yes. In real life, the hangman apparently had to grab hold of his legs and pull them down to speed up the process, as Andre was a fairly light man.
      I love the term bang-limbo! Literally every time I cut my bangs, I end up in bang-limbo for way too long when they grow out a bit, because I can never decide what to do. I’ve had bangs since I was 15, and at this point, I think maybe it’s just meant to be.
      I can’t say that I go through a large quantity of preserves (I’m more of a lemon curd eater), so a pound in two months would probably do me fine, unless that was my only source of fruit (although they also made horrible things like carrot preserves. I could never quite figure out how they were preserving all these things with sugar being so heavily rationed!). Though I believe I’ve read that the British public during rationing actually had a more nutritionally balanced diet than before and after rationing, so I guess they knew what they were doing. Certainly I’d be in better shape if someone limited my butter to 2 oz a week – I wouldn’t be able to do any baking!

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