Located in one of London’s most affluent Boroughs, the dedicated and central museum for this tranche of the British military, the National Army Museum sits adjacent to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home to the Chelsea Pensioners and adds to the prestige and occasion of visiting this recently refurbished and modern attraction. Originally conceived in the 1950’s to have a permanent establishment dedicated towards the history of the Army, opened as a temporary exhibit in Sandhurst before moving to its permanent home in Chelsea opening in 1971. There was an intention to expand the Museum using a similar model and approach as the Imperial War Museum with an annex located in the north of the country however these plans were cancelled and instead the museum underwent a major renovation program from 2006 onwards, eventually reopening to the public in its current state in 2017, a transformed modern space a world away from the aged and tired exhibits previously on show. It is well lit, balances information and exhibits in a measured fashion and feels befitting of an attraction in the modern day. With five permanent sections to explore in addition to a temporary gallery that has seen military themed exhibits in residence since its reopening it is an informative and fascinating location to visit.
Given it’s cultural status and legacy, London benefits from a multitude of museums and attractions dedicated to the history of the Armed Services of the United Kingdom, the majority of the Imperial War Museum and its various annexes located in and around the capital including amongst others, HMS Belfast on the River Thames and Royal Air Force Museum representing and showcasing the legacy of the Navy and Airforce respectively, in London The National Army Museum dedicated for the preservation of the history of the Army and prosperity for generations hence. As with the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, there is a certain restriction on what can be displayed in terms of the larger exhibits, with other locations in the country serving this purpose for instance the planned Artillery Museum opening in 2022 replacing the former Firepower location in South London, The Tank Museum in Bovington or the Duxford annexe with a plethora of airplanes and helicopters on show. What is featured here feels like an intimate and curated selection of exhibits and items that very much tell a narrative on this services history. Perhaps there is a little envy other locations have the means to showcase the tanks and planes, equally given the location and cost of operating in London, I can understand the limitation of what is on show.
As with nearly every attraction, it has been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, forced to closed losing the income from visitors and patrons in addition to lost income from the revenue generated by the temporary exhibits held throughout the year. Returning to the National Army Museum following its reopening in the last week or two was an interesting and somewhat forlorn experience, the character and energy felt from visiting crowds and families largely subdued given the current need to restrict numbers and entrants for safety reasons. Entirely understandable and perhaps a reflection of the short term experience many visitors will feel when attending a museum of this nature. But certainly, you do draw off the enthusiasm and energy of others in a public setting and it is a little bittersweet to see the rooms largely empty and static, areas taped off or interactive aspects entirely locked away to allow the venue to open in a safe and manageable way. You can be grateful that a museum such as this has found a way to be open and accessible in such a short space and time to allow visitors to return, equally you do long for the day when a little more normalcy returns and you can see the enthusiasm and enjoyment of others as you explore the exhibits and rooms of the attraction.
The museum itself is divided into five separate permanent attractions and galleries, Soldier, Battle, Society, Army and Insite divided across three floors though at present with restrictions in place the final gallery on the lower ground floor is closed. Ordinarily there is an open plan and feel to the museum with visitors able to explore at their own pace and choosing accessible by stairs and lift though in order to facilitate a safe environment for visitors it is currently operating a sign posted one way system through the exhibits. Access as with all exhibits and museums at present is through a booked ticketed time slot that allows the facility to safely control the level of visitors on site in line with Government guidance for the safety of those attending. This will change in due course you’d imagine as this becomes less prevalent but for now, a necessary evil to live with. As a consequence, on arrival you are directed towards the Soldier exhibit with everyone else and it does have a soft group tour feel to the occasion though eventually you realise people do disperse at differing paces so you are left to explore the attraction at your speed. There is enough space in the rooms to maneuver and walk around without feeling the pressure to move with those caught behind you. For a nation famed and well known for a penchant for queueing, there is an unwelcoming sense of expectation to push forward and move in enclosed gatherings such as this especially in a pandemic situation.
To have a spacious and open museum such as this that allows you to read and enjoy the exhibits at your own pace without hindering others was a welcome experience. There is a certain sense to the layout of the museum and it has been curated in a way to give as wide an impression as possible within the confines of the space available. The opening gallery Soldier showcases the personal life in the front lines over the course of the armies existence with accounts across history from food to training, discipline and life on deployment. It’s not a life I had personally considered but it’s fascinating nonetheless to read the accounts of those who signed up to make the potentially ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms and liberties throughout history, how practises, training and discipline has evolved over history and molded the expectations and capabilities of a front line soldier in the army today. A number of exhibits in this gallery have been restricted at present, mainly catered towards a younger or interactive audience, the option to dress up in uniform, to handle objects or interact with displays removed or taped off ensuring a safe and sanitary environment. It’s understandable but a little sad to see these restrictions in place and shows just how quickly an ostensible “modern museum” opened relatively recently in the last three years is immediately dated and impacted by a circumstance such as that we’ve all had to adjust to.
Following the direction of tour in the museum you arrive on the first floor passing the closed temporary exhibit gallery and arriving at the Battle gallery which serves to showcase a variety of conflicts and campaigns the British Army has been involved in over the last four hundred years. From the Napoleonic conflicts of the red jacketed army and their most revered victory against the French army at the Battle of Waterloo to more recent campaigns in Afghanistan, it is a concise and informative array of exhibits, highlights including a jacket and hat worn by Wellington at Waterloo to the orders that led to the infamous Charge Of The Light Brigade during the Crimean War. In recent years there has been a concerted measure in some quarters to cast judgement and doubt on the motives and purpose of these conflicts, whether it was colonialism or Empire building at the expense of indigenous nations. Leaving that judgement to history, you are left when visiting and exploring these accounts and artefacts with a respect for the bravery and fortitude of these soldiers who made that sacrifice when their country asked it of them. Often in brutal and hard conditions, there is of course the matter of conscription and enforced service historically but certainly in recent years with a voluntary armed force, it does enforce your respect for everyone who wears the uniform.
As a juxtaposition to life in the Army, the societal reaction and impression of the armed services is explored in the Society gallery, focusing on a number of fictional movies and series based on campaigns and conflicts featuring primarily the British Army in addition to lexicon and dialect that have become commonplace in our vocabulary today that has its origins in the services. It is presented in one of the museums most appealing exhibits that has a presentation and style akin to an installation at the Tate Modern. This part of the museum is probably the most accessible and easy to understand given its nature and purpose of being a reflection of how the military is presented and experienced in the civilian sector. From the cordial such as military themed toys and action figures, street names and pubs that have a military lineage or history attached to them to the more oppressive with a section focusing on the Troubles in Ireland and how the military came to be seen as a policing force ensuring an element of peace in that conflict that still lingers today. Part of the armies remit in recent years and campaigns has been to establish a calming presence in theatres of conflict, in the absence of martial law being declared as a population we’ve never had to experience to date an exposure to the military in operation on our streets so it’s interesting to read and see how others have reacted to their presence. From here, today you are directed towards the final gallery centered around the Army as a collective presence, showcasing a variety of uniforms over its history and medals, it’s a fitting holistic experience that finishes asking you a variety of questions as to the armies purpose and role for the future comparing your answers to other visitors. I appreciated these aspects of the museum are still open as it allows you to experience and see an admittedly narrow but fascinating insight into how others view its purpose.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volleyed and thundered;The Charge Of The Light Brigade, Lord Alfred Tennyson
Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred
Visiting the National Army Museum at this moment in time is a little different to any other time I have been fortunate to attend. Hopefully the restrictions on our everyday living will subside and fade away in due course but for now, even the intention of visiting does require planning and engagement to ensure your very entry. Notably, in the absence of international travel in any large numbers there isn’t a pressing demand or restriction on availability to get in, I was able to ticket my timed slot with a weeks notice and it was noticeably quiet on arrival, with a few hardened visitors when the doors opened such as I but certainly not the volume I had previously experienced. There are ways you can support a museum at the moment and I am making efforts to purchase a guide or souvenir when visiting to provide at least a little income to them in the absence of ticketed entry. One of the highlights of living in London is the museum status that permits free entry to the main national galleries in the UK, excellent for visitors, but at a time such as this devastating for these attractions that rely on footfall and spending for a large degree of their revenue. I make a point to support and purchase annual membership each year to a museum group, visiting the Army Museum today which is still free to enter and enjoy, I wanted to purchase something to show my appreciation to them for opening up once more for our enjoyment.
It is a different experience in being directed around a set route, it perhaps gives indication for the foreseeable future of what attending a museum will look like but equally, there is something enjoyable in being able to visit and see a set exhibit or room, this sort of sign posted tourism just lacks that feeling of spontaneity and opportunism. I’ll be clear, it was a little more open than I had expected with the blessed freedom to use the facilities at different levels which made for an unpleasant feeling when visiting Highclere Castle recently. There is a need to provision for visitor safety which is an absolute priority at the moment I was just personally grateful given the size and planning of the building there was enough provision and freedom to allow the use of lifts, toilets and facilities without a regimented progression from gallery to gallery leaving you feeling uncomfortable and rushed. Having visited on prior occasion in another world and time, taking away the freedom to explore as you will does feel a little bittersweet, however there is an order to the route and path you follow that does expand logically from the soldiers experience to the army, to societal impressions that feels as if you are experiencing the history at progressive logical stages. By design or happenstance it works and is enjoyable to explore. I do commend all the staff and workers at the museum who were glad to see people attending and you felt the enthusiasm and energy from them welcoming people back once again, whatever restrictions are in place they have made it work and deserve praise for doing so.
I did feel a certain degree of hesitation and trepidation venturing out into London to visit this museum, passenger usage on the Underground is a shadow of its usual self, especially on a wet weekend when families ordinarily use museums as a diversion for life at home. It feels quiet in London still, people reticent to venture out especially to the more older museums which aren’t as catered or easily accommodating with current restrictions. Given the modernity of the National Army Museum and it’s almost open plan and spacious interior, that anxiety was washed away in moments, it is pleasant to explore and clearly evident the staff and curators have designed an informative and welcoming experience whilst providing for visitor safety. I genuinely hope attractions like this continue to be operationally viable to remain open, there will be a number of victims from this pandemic in the entertainment industry, with venues unable to justify costs with the reduction in income. Visiting a museum will require planning and foresight, something any traveller really in Europe or across the world will attest to ordinarily with ticket purchases the normal operating model, here for a very different reason but certainly feeling like more of an occasion than a usual distraction from life. It does feel a little different, certain touches and areas taped off pulling you from the experience and reminding you why it is quiet but I’m optimistic life will return to normalcy, and that this very welcoming and enjoyable museum will see its audience return and appreciate the history of our British Army.
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