There used to be a kind of war weariness about our military museums, so that the National Maritime Museum focussed on subjects like Arctic exploration and the Imperial War Museum on the Holocaust, liked Fawlty’s “Don't mention, the war!” Places like the National Army Museum were lost, not sure whether to look at the well-known battle stories of yore or the plight of unlimbed EID victims. The Royal Artillery’s museum in Woolwich gave up the ghost altogether.
But the National Army Museum reopens next week after a £23.75m remake to tell a quite different story about war in an apparently more pragmatic age.
The NAM, the brainchild of an old warrior of both world wars, Gerald Templer, who raised all the money personally to get the first edition of the museum opened next to the Chelsea Hospital in 1971, had always struggled, stuck in a pre-Lottery age where it was in the unfashionable part of Chelsea, where too few people were prepared to wander from the tourist trail to find out about the Battles of Waterloo and El Alamein. The second element of the building opened in 1981 when more money had been raised, and somehow the two halves never quite met. The place was dark, unwelcoming and, well, sinister.
Janice Murray, a museum person through and through with no military background, became director in 2012 with the firm commitment to close the place down and start again. She thought about shifting the whole place somewhere else, but given the extremely generous leasehold on the site they're on and the shortage of affordable real estate anywhere else, she was stuck with Royal Hospital Road, next to the Chelsea Physic Garden. She wants 400,000 visitors, and with the co-operation of the tourist marketers steering people a few yards south from the King’s Road plus her completely new museum full of light, colour and computer assistance, and for the first time a foyer, a café and an education centre, she should get them.
Because she sensed a change in the public mood, and a public need for a different story. They want to know about the army that means something to them, not the blood laden barrack room stories that only soldiers understand. The Brutalist building was only OK as far as the outer shell was concerned, the rest she has changed, with an atrium bringing glorious light to all areas for the first time. She shovelled out tons of old uniforms and medalia and concentrated instead on individual stories and iconic emblems of army life – the Second World War quartermaster’s cigarette issue made with “the very choicest horse shit from only contented horses”, the Nazi car pennant liberated by Private Robert Powis in Berlin, the order that launched the Charge of Light Brigade in 1854.
She has divided the display into five sections, and the biggest if them is “Society” – the army on our streets, as she puts it, which includes both armoured “pig” water canons from Northern Ireland and Jimi Hendrix’s hussar’s jacket, bought in the King’s Road in the 1960s.
Janice Murray has noticed that the emphasis has changed from triumphalism to compassion – in the 21st century we care more about the injured soldiers than their victories – and that, whatever the media are telling us, the army is and has always been in all our lives. It’s a story that needs to be told and hasn’t been adequately until now, and it’s a fascinating one to hear.