Hanna Smyth is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford with the Globalising and Localising the Great War research network. Her research examines how Imperial War Graves Commission sites represented, reinforced, and performed different aspects of identity for South Africa, India, Canada, & Australia in France and Belgium between 1917-1938. She earned her MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2015.
I visited the new National Army Museum recently with curiosity and high hopes. Reopened this March after years of closure for a complete redevelopment, the NAM had the rare opportunity of a near-clean slate in terms of its interpretation of Britain’s relationship with conflict. As a visitor, my slate was also fairly clean, having never visited the museum’s previous iteration. (However, I was very aware that I would inevitably compare it to the IWM, as my Masters dissertation assessed the IWM’s interpretation in its new FWW gallery).
The new NAM is structured around four permanent galleries: ‘Battle’, ‘Society’, ‘Army’, and ‘Soldier’. Though these are thematic, ‘Battle’ in particular adopts a chronological internal structure, dividing the “British experience of battle” into four periods spanning 1640 to the present. As a historian of war cemeteries and memorials, I was pleased to see that the key message panel that opens the exhibit states, “battles have always had a traumatic and usually bloody human cost,” an attempt to step away from potential accusations of glorification. One of the gallery’s strongest features is the word-walls that open each of the four sections, filled with relevant ethical questions and keywords.
A clear star object for ‘Battle’ is its 420-square-foot diorama of the Battle of Waterloo, made in 1838; dioramas are now emblematic of static interpretation, and thus increasingly seen in a negative light, but this one is saved and pulled into the 21st-century museum through the addition of a detailed tilt-and-touchscreen interactive that allows visitors to virtually roam the diorama’s battlefield. Notably, the interactive narrates the battle in the present tense, increasing the sense of immediacy and connection to the visitor. Alongside these innovative features, of all the galleries ‘Battle’ also has the most features reminiscent of a stereotypical military museum, such as a large case filled almost entirely with an array of dozens of hanging guns.
In contrast to the dark colours and serious tone of ‘Battle’, ‘Society’ takes the opposite approach, with a white-and-fluorescent colour scheme that made me feel like I was entering an exhibit on 1960s pop culture.
This freewheeling and ‘fun’ aesthetic worked well for parts of the exhibit, such as those discussing the army’s influence on popular expressions (complete with slang phrases lit up in glowing neon), music, and toys, but was slightly jarring considering that other sections in the gallery discuss society’s ethical ramifications of entering conflict and how the dead are remembered. However, I was particularly impressed by the text of the “attitudes to conflict” section, which discusses how and why popular support for the army has fluctuated over time. As well, the low-tech interactive feature of the toys section— where visitors are encouraged to write their own museum labels to add to the exhibit:
was a good nod to contemporary best practices regarding museum visitor engagement, and dissolving the dichotomy between ‘visitor’ and ‘curator’. (See Nina Simon’s classic text The Participatory Museum  for more on contemporary best practices).
The ‘Army’ gallery focuses on two clear themes: identity and purpose. Panels and cases explore different aspects of army identity and how it is created, while additional panels and interactive digital features encourage the visitor to question the past, present, and future purposes of the army. The gallery’s entry panel asks “Why do we have an Army?” and gives the historical context of its origins; it begins with an interesting interpretive technique, establishing coloured lines representing the power of the army, crown, and parliament respectively. These zigzag across the panels, connecting to relevant artefacts for each of those powers, so I was then disappointed and confused to see this technique quickly abandoned as soon as you turn the first corner within the gallery, as it had the potential to be an effective tool to encourage comparison and understanding of the interactions between different types of power.
I was particularly impressed by four digital stations at the end of the gallery, each allowing visitors to vote on a question and see the results. Questions included “should Britain have an army”, “what issue should the British army focus on in the coming decade”, and “will there still be a British army in a hundred years’ time”. Their colour scheme of pink, purple, orange, and yellow, combined with the rainbow colour scheme in effect on other panels and in the museum’s lobby spaces, seemed like a stark and deliberate choice in defiance of the khaki and green colours that traditionally predominate military exhibits. This was an effective, understandable, and even commendable-in-principle decision, but overall its abundance created a tone tipping slightly too far towards levity, robbing the museum’s key messages of some of the gravity and reflection they deserve.
Posing questions to the visitor is also a central technique in the ‘Soldier’ gallery, which is framed by overhead panels at the entrance and exit asking “Could you be a soldier?”. Three months after opening, the museum is still clearly working out some minor kinks: it seems as though the intention is to have some kind of device at the beginning and end to allow visitors to actually answer that question, because there is a digital screen at the exit that currently just says “Yes: 0%”. Similarly, a digital screen in the lobby area is filled with interesting ethical questions, but underneath each it just says “In the last 24 hours, 0% answered ‘yes’”.
However, the other digital elements in ‘Soldier’ were all functioning well, including a march drill exercise that picks up the visitor’s movements through sensors, touch-screen tables exploring military rations, and a large video screen area, whose fragmented and jagged form is reminiscent of the near-total lack of curves in the IWM FWW gallery’s elements.
‘Soldier’ is broadly chronological, but not historically chronological: rather, it traces chronologically the elements of soldiers’ experiences. Thus, the gallery begins with content on recruitment and enlistment, and ends with discussions of injury, PTSD, and an opportunity for visitors to write reflections on what they think of soldiers and service. A particularly effective element was a series of dinner plates decorated with coloured pie-charts, showing how soldiers’ diets have changed over time. Throughout the gallery there is extensive use of testimony from historical and contemporary soldiers and army personnel, including women. The choice of images and artefacts in ‘Soldier’ clearly reflects an attempt at increased inclusion of non-white perspectives and recognition of different types of service with the army. For example, a portrait of Colonel James Skinner, a half-Indian / half-Scottish 19th century soldier, features prominently near the entryway, and I was pleased that when a gallery interpreter approached me, he used Skinner’s story as his opening hook to engage me.
Of all the galleries, ‘Soldier’ made the most extensive use of video footage, and I was disappointed to see that although captioned, none, even the video feature that opens the gallery, were British Sign Language captioned (notably in contrast to the IWM). Most interactives and many panels seemed to be positioned at heights and angles suitable for wheelchair users. However, the museum’s ‘Access and Equality’ page is unfortunately sparse, leaving one wondering what other types of access needs the galleries are able and intended to accommodate (e.g. are there large-print label copies available? Are there any events or accommodations for people with sensory or learning disorders?). Surprisingly, perhaps due to its lengthy closure, the museum also does not appear as a landmark on the ubiquitous London pedestrian streetmap signs in the area, making successful navigation to the site itself difficult.
Aside from the four permanent galleries, other key features of the museum include a temporary exhibition space, a children’s play area, and a reading area. The temporary exhibition at present is War Paint, tracing the various intersections between art and military life (including mapping and propaganda) over several centuries. Particularly striking was the work “Brothers in Arms” (Michael Crossan, 2012), dealing with rehabilitation after service. Without a child in tow, I couldn’t visit the play area, so I was interested to read about it on their website.As an army museum, the NAM faces a challenge in providing children’s activities relating to the army yet needing to avoid any playacted violence or perceived encouragement of such. Instead, the museum has come up with an obstacle course, a communication vehicle, a cookhouse, a quartermaster store, and survival skills training as their key activities. This still perhaps instills in children a problematic perception of the army as ‘fun’, but I will leave it to trained early childhood educators to weigh in more decisively.
Its design intimates an attempt at a welcoming, comfortable, and exploratory space (including beanbag chairs); it seems like a fledging version of the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room, which remains the gold standard in museum reading rooms as dynamic learning spaces. More than half of the NAM reading area’s shelf space is empty, but a collection of reading material both on military history and relevant global historical contexts is visibly in development. I was particularly impressed to hear about the thought and effort that its staff are putting into both acquiring and deciding how best to highlight works by female authors. This ties in with the NAM’s excellent 2017 programming theme on women, which aims to foreground both the historical and contemporary contributions of women to the army and also the contributions of women academics as war historians.
As a historian in global & imperial history, I was pleased that the new NAM has incorporated acknowledgements of the army’s problematic history, e.g. panel text stating “it has also been used to expand the British Empire and has played a part in suppressing local populations”. A series of touchscreens by cases near the reading area brilliantly brings in voices from communities that have a long history with British imperialism, with short videos discussing objects acquired from other parts of the world and their relevance (e.g. “Britain’s Sudanese community reacts to historic objects from the region”; “Objects collected by British soldiers in the Punjab come under scrutiny from the UK Punjab Heritage Association”). However, these interactives have one fatal flaw: each contains three videos, named “Object Discussion”, “Community Viewpoint”, and “Expert’s Viewpoint”. I strongly disagree with the insinuation that these communities are not experts on their own heritage, and wish this unnecessary binary had been avoided by calling the latter video in each series the “Academic’s Viewpoint”, for example, instead.
Having arrived at the museum with high hopes for its interpretation, I left it with high hopes for the generation of children who are going to grow up coming to this (free!) museum that teaches them to ask questions about military history and ethics. It has been lamented recently that the NAM is no longer serving solely as a place to house the paraphernalia of the national army; but any museum who takes ‘just housing paraphernalia’ as its main remit is grossly neglecting both its potential and its responsibility, to the detriment of its audiences. The new NAM has sidestepped that trap, and is headed in the right direction.
For more details and information about how to visit please see: https://www.nam.ac.uk