“Our dynamic new galleries showcase thousands of objects from across our collections. They tell a huge range of stories from the army’s history. The galleries offer many perspectives. They address fundamental questions such as ‘Why do we have an army?’, examine the army’s relationship with society, and show how it has touched virtually every part of the world. They also reveal individual experiences of life as a soldier, including the conflicts they have fought in.”
“Do you want to join the army?” The title of this post is based off a question I heard a mother ask her daughter in the cafe of the National Army Museum, the daughter nodded while chomping on Pom Bears. Would her answer of been the same before visiting the museum?
National Army Museum still has that ‘new museum smell’, the galleries are still pristine, the walls are still that perfect white, and 99% of the interactives are still working. (Which, by museum standards, is incredible.) After its £23.75 million, three-year redevelopment, perhaps that is an expected given. The galleries are thematic, with a focus on personal stories and abstract ideas, rather than a simplistic chronological narrative that could’ve been developed. Split into Soldier, Army, Society, Battle, and Insight galleries, some of the lines are blurred between the spaces, with the overarching themes blending the galleries into the wider museum.
The soldier gallery explores recruitment, training, and daily life of the historical and contemporary soldier. As the museum isn’t displayed chronologically, the old juxtaposed with the contemporary. Why do people join the army, and could you, is the question this gallery asks of it’s visitors. Literally. When you walk in the gallery, above you is “Could you be a soldier” above you, with which entrance you walk in (yes/no) your answer, the same is then asked upon the exit. The gallery humanises the soldiers, showing their daily life as normal, often mundane, sometimes fun. One audience that was certainly considered in the gallery design was children. Climb in tanks, shooting games, marching practice interactives, if a child wanted to be a soldier, this would be the place to train.
Comparisons to Imperial War Museum are inevitable, and although I don’t want to make them, it’s so hard not to. I like to think of myself as a pacifist. While I have a broad understanding of the complex necessity of war, I also think there must be an alternative. Or, if war and the armed forces are necessary, ethics must always be considered and followed. I went in with that incredibly bias viewpoint, and probably (definitely) went searching for those messages throughout the museums narrative, and to a degree I found them. If I wasn’t searching for this opinion that mirrored my own to be reflected, would I have found it?
The Society gallery was always going to be my favourite, I’ve always viewed history and museums with a social, human perspective. How society affects the army and vice versa is explored and questioned throughout. This gallery explored how media is influenced, and influences, our perception of the army and how we interact with those questions. As a stark contrast to the floor below, with it’s gun shooting and marching practice games, this gallery asks how we think about children playing soldiers, asking “are we comfortable with children playing at killing?” citing predominantly video games like Call of Duty.
That said, while I think there is more that can be done, one thing the National Army Museum does do well is recognising its own controversy. While it was occasionally hidden behind a cool looking uniform that drew most visitors attention, there was an implicit and occasional explicit recognition of difficult histories, like British empire, and the ethics of army involvement in social issues, such as riots, the IRA incidents etc. On the walls are questions, with no space to answer them in the museum itself, but to take away from the museum to consider: “Are civilians a legitimate target?” “Should enemy soldiers be well treated?” “What is the fine line between questioning and torture?” Basically, asking, is all fair in love and war?