Military museums have always been the Marmite of the arts and heritage sector. As a gallery-goer, you either love the weapons, the tales, the slightly overwrought approach to pageantry; or the idea of attending a war exhibit elicits a Pavlovian relapse into rainy family trips, dingy bunkers, and a ‘treat’ stop at the accompanying ‘Blitz’ themed chipboard café for a leathery egg. (This writer – as you might be able to infer – has some repressed traumas for which he has not forgiven his parents.) But launching on Royal Hospital Road this month is a new space ready to rebrand the traditional approach to military history.
The National Army Museum (NAM) reopened its doors on 30 March, a new start after a three-year redesign hiatus. The gallery’s dramatic revamp cost £23.75 million and sees the original brick-beige 1960’s architecture overhauled in favour of a fresh glass exterior. Inside, the museum’s central hall is prized open: a wide, white-walled atrium now stretches from the third floor to the lower galleries, with a well-placed café-restaurant perched to the side of the upper promenade – just in case you fancied a croissant after studying the Battle of Waterloo.
National Army Museum, London. Courtesy of the National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Paul Raftery (3)
The museum’s exhibition spaces have also been remodelled. Gone are the chronological trudges through conflicts past to present. Now the Chelsea attraction splits into five new galleries – Soldier, Army, Insight, Battle and Society – each a thematic romp through the military’s diverse impact. The refurbished site has also acquired a space for temporary exhibitions: War Paint, a collection of over 130 paintings of or by soldiers, currently sits in the 500m² showroom. And the Templar Study Centre, a Learning Centre and a Children’s Play Base make up the redevelopment’s new additions.
So what to make of NAM’s fresh face, this bright and breezy reinvention of the formula? Walking through the colourful galleries, flashy exhibits sticking out left, right and centre, it’s hard to miss the emphasis on approachability. This is a space made to appeal to visitors, and not just the traditional visitor to a military museum. There are interactive exhibits and puzzle games, simulators and audio-recordings; the whole of the ‘Society’ section feels purpose-built to engage, everyday objects traced back to their army origins. Not all of these innovations land: a selfie stand with heads imposed technologically over the outline of a soldier – a kind of digital, non-seaside Head-in-the-Hole – feels a bit out of place. But most bring a real dynamism: this would be a great kids day out.
Army gallery, NAM. Courtesy of the National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Richard Lea-Hair (3)
This aim to engage was a primary ambition for the Army Museum’s Director General Janice Murray. At the site’s reopening she stressed her hope for the redevelopment to create “a more inviting” space for all comers, to respond to a changing public. In the final months of the old design’s run, the curatorial team launched what would become an influential visitor survey. The questionnaire probed into all areas of the museum, the lay-out, the themes, the general atmosphere – and the results weren’t altogether flattering. Dark, monotonal, uninspiring – the general public, it would appear, don’t like to hold back. Few could make the same criticisms of the NAM’s reincarnation.
The new design is bursting with activity. Every brightly lit corner is packed with something different – armour, film posters, a tank simulator. It’s a big bubble of intrigue. The revealing census contributed to more than just layout, however. When asked what questions they would like the National Army Museum to answer, the vast majority of visitors, according to survey, responded ‘What is it like to be a soldier?’. Step forward the ‘Soldier’ gallery. Overseen by curator Chris Cooper, the ‘Soldier’ gallery aims to recreate the journey of an army volunteer. From training instructed by an interactive drill sergeant – think Full Metal Jacket, but without the four-letter words– to first-hand audio accounts of conflict, visitors are taken step by step through the progression of a modern recruit, warts and all.
Army gallery facts wall, NAM. Courtsey of National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Richard Lea-Hair
Is it really possible to place the average tourist, wandering in from Chelsea’s brand of prim cafes and double lattes, into the mudded boots of an infantryman? No, obviously not. But NAM has weighted an especial emphasis on the unseen moments of soldierly life rarely considered. Exhibits highlight aspects such as food, fitness and even relieving the boredom of the barracks. A particularly poignant display underscores the process of reintegrating into civilian life with accounts of both veterans’ success stories and their tragic declines in fortune. A fighter’s life, as the ‘Soldier’ gallery emphasizes, is more than just the events on the battlefield.
This ethos – looking beyond just conflict – seems to fit the new NAM quite neatly. If you want to learn about combat, it’s there: the ‘Battle’ gallery provides a comprehensive sojourn through Britain’s wars, 1600 to present, with a particularly impressive collection of heirlooms from the Duke of Wellington. But there’s so much more on offer, from the ‘Army’ gallery’s art to the ‘Insight’ gallery’s global politics to the ‘Society’ gallery’s high street fashion. Returning to the Marmite paradigm, this reborn attraction is the exception to the rule. If you’re not usually a fan of war museums, try the new National Army Museum. It’s military history with the widest focus. Janice Murray ended her speech to open the museum stating “You cannot understand British history, without understanding the role of the British army.” In this museum this isn’t just about the battles.