Sunday, 23 January 2011

National Army Museum

The third (actually the first chronologically) of my Chelsea museum jaunt.
The outside of the museum, on Royal Hospital Road
The history of the British Army, from very early, pre-formal days (1066-1783), then through the Napoleonic era and the great rise of the British Empire, the World Wars and then modern conflicts.
I have to say I was a little underwhelmed, but given a day's introspection (procrastination at writing this entry) I think the problem is more with me - I was expecting a 'war' museum, with huge exhibits on WW1&2 for example. The National Army museum doesn't really do that - the WW1&2 section is no bigger than the Boer war section for example. And I now think they are correct. What I was expecting would actually be comprehensively covered in the Imperial War Museum, for example (and I remember it well from childhood visits.)
What the National Army Museum is about, and which it does well, is the history of the British Army. You would have thought I'd understood that in advance. So, some more of my faulty reasoning removed..

Spread across 4 floors, with large permanent exhibitions, and changing special exhibitions (the one I saw was 'The Road to Kabul', which shows that not much has changed in Afghanistan in 200 years) the museum is pretty comprehensive. Starting properly from around the late 18th century, the museum takes you through the life of soldiers of the time, their weaponry (how it changes, how it doesn't) and the conflicts they've served in.
Some points that stuck in my mind, and items of interest:
  • The history of the Army is also, quite overtly, the history of British commercial expansion. What interests me is how honest this seemingly was - we wanted to dominate global trade, and to do that we had to dominate the world through force when necessary. And trade HAS been the engine of global development and improvement, so despite any downside (and there's a lot) I'm on the side of it having been done this way. Contrast that with now, where politicians bend over backwards to deny any commercial linkages to war and how unacceptable it is to claim such things - yet its still directly and completely true. I wish we could be more honest, or rather, our politicians (e.g. 'weapons of mass destruction' nonsense.)
  • The Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour, was created by Queen Victoria in 1856 during the Crimean War. More than 1300 have been awarded, and three fathers and sons have received it. It's a peculiarly dull, bronze medal, but instantly recognisable (to me anyway.)
  • Guns haven't changed a lot - well, they obviously have, but the basic shape and form is unchanged.
  • Some of the items of everyday soldiering life are quite poignant - cups, glasses, mess tins, boot polish, dog tags
  • There is a great, large diorama, of the fields of Waterloo, with a presentation that runs through the battle, lighting up the areas of terrain in action. I spent a very enjoyable ten minutes there, and even the arrival of several small children wasn't too disruptive, as they were transfixed (I'm not sure they understood it mind you.) SPOILER ALERT - the British won.
  • The skeleton of Napoleon's favourite horse is on display
  • 20th century conflicts are particularly well covered, from Rwanda, Somalia to Northern Ireland.
There is a lot of army-related art, much of it fantastic.
One of the things I enjoyed most was a gallery of Army recruitment posters through the ages, showing how much things have changed - from naked jingoist patriotism, to a caring, sharing multi-gender, multi-racial army today. I stole a quick snap of my favourite, a remix (or mashup?) of the classic Kitchener poster:

I didn't take many photos, in fact, pretty much none - they are very sensitive about it. But my view is, this is a work of review, so I'm entitled to quote from the original source (i.e. take photos).
One final shot
Bomb disposal from the early 70s, Northern Ireland

I enjoyed the National Army Museum more than I thought, and more in retrospect than in person. Bear in mind, its about the Army, not about War in general, and you won't be disappointed.
It looks to be a very good educational resource, and the website has some deep and interesting online exhibits.

Cost: Free. I bought a guide for £4.50 though
Food and Drink: A very good looking cafe - I wasn't hungry or thirsty, but I know a decent cafe (real coffee, cakes etc) when I see one.
Toilets: Once again, I didn't need to go. I may stop posting this item...
Travel: It's here. Likewise, it entirely depends on where you live. Chelsea isn't hard to get to and there's a lot of other reasons for being the area (you should also go the the Royal Hospital, like I did)
Web: http://www.national-army-museum.ac.uk

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