National Army Museum Opening

I went on Tuesday March 28 to the opening of the newly revamped (with Lottery money) NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM near Sloane Square. And a very good job they have done too, with a proper entrance (they had only a crappy side entrance before) and impressive atrium. The exhibits are well presented and labelled, though with inevitable nods to ‘social context’, inclusion etc, reminders of the social divisions of yesteryear. But not half as preachy as the recently re-opened IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM which is now in effect the IMPERIAL ANTI-WAR MUSEUM, with irritating and clunking concessions to modish orthodoxy that war is a Very Bad Thing (yes, but not perhaps as bad as occupation, oppression and genocide). The NAM have succeeded in putting more of its vast collection on display, perhaps three times as much; the IWM, in contrast, have reduced the number of exhibits.

The NAM has got the usual inter-active stuff, for yoof, but it is done well, not like the puerile and pointless (and costly) gimickry of the WWI Gallery at the IWM. The Siborne WATERLOO MODEL looks much better in its superb new case, a gift from the Marquess of Anglesey whose guest I was. However, old farts like us are bemused by touch screens and I yearned for an old fashioned button I could press to illuminate the thing. It is fun and instructive to go to a grand opening with a grand bloke like Lord Anglesey, there is a bit of reflected glory, people think you must be important, until they read your lapel badge which gives the game away that you are plain old ‘Mr’ Bird, dead common. I availed myself of the excellent champagne but left at a reasonable time to avoid offending the lovely waitresses with louche behaviour. The first Marquess (pictured, a painting by William Salter) was of course second-in-command to Wellington at Waterloo and commanded the cavalry, which routed d’Erlon’s infantry attack but then famously got carried away and were hideously mauled, leaving the Duke bereft of his finest mounts for the rest of the day. Anglesey (actually Lord Uxbridge in 1815) had commanded the cavalry with great distinction in the Peninsula but when he ran off with Wellington’s brother’s missus he had to leave Spain. Wellington’s disapproval was twofold – he thought him a cad, obviously, but also distrusted a cavalry commander who tended to ‘charge in all directions’. The brave (and randy rake) left his leg at Waterloo where it is buried.


But back to the disaster of the IWM, something akin to the military equivalent of the botched over-cleaning of the Sistine Ceiling. The refit cost £40m, and the result is worse than the old IWM. What went wrong?


As long ago as December 2010 plans were announced to redevelop the WW1 Gallery in time for the centenary in 2014. In Oct 2012 the PM announced an additional £5m of govt funding but £40m was needed and this came largely through the National Heritage Lottery Fund; however, the IWM had applied late for funding and, although ultimately successful, both the design (from the pricey Foster and Partners of course) and work was rushed to try and meet an August 2014 deadline.

Galleries were closed during September 2012, and by December 2012 over sixty tanks, SPGs, guns, vehicles etc had been removed from the atrium for conservation at Duxford. The IWM closed to the public on 2 January 2013 and disastrously remained closed until July 2014, crucial months when many Great War enthusiasts and scholars wanted to visit the museum.

The new design, the IWM claims, provides better WW1 galleries, a new central hall, easier navigation and improved visitor facilities, access and circulation. It does not. Access to all floors is now down a flight of stairs, across the new atrium, and up more stairs. The atrium, bereft of the old tanks and some fascinating kit, is smaller and darker than the old one, and boasts, if that is the right word, such ‘important’ objects as a Land Rover and some rusted junk, the remains of a truck whacked in the Iraq War, 2003. What is the point of that? Foster’s ‘concept’ includes massive internal buttresses that are a) ugly and oppressive and seem to come from the school of Albert Speer and b) reduce the space for exhibits. The WW1 galleries dumb the history of both the origins of the war and its narrative because of too much concision, and puerile gadgetry. Three blow-ups of famous photos – Hurley’s photo of Chateau Wood, Ypres; Rider-Rider’s photo of machine gunners at Passchendaele; and the great picture of stretcher bearers at Pilkem Wood are not even captioned, yet each tells a revealing story. We are told helpfully, and predictably, that before the war there was great social inequality in Britain.

The VC Gallery is a litany of mistakes and babyish Boys’ Own style animated cartoons, that hardly dignify the memory of heroes. The IWM cannot seem to make up its mind whether it’s for schools and children or for students and scholars. It CAN do both but it has chosen to pander to the former at the expense of the latter. I suspect, from my own experience, that with Lottery money came strings – that the IWM had to make exhibits ‘accessible’ to young people, make them ‘inclusive’, emphasise ‘heritage’ and the role of women and colonial troops. The toruble with their structure is that the trustees are Commonwealth High Commissioners, busy people, and not (obviously) curators. The one real expert on the board is Huw Strachan but he has books to write and lectures to deliver. The museum’s Education Department had a malign influence, I was told. It happens nowadays.

Nicky Bird