Ready for inspection

by agwelch

Feature for New Design magazine covering the re-opening of the National Army Museum following its multi-million pound overhaul

Design and the army are intrinsically linked. Whether it’s the performance of equipment on the battlefield, the pageantry of dress uniforms on the parade ground, or how visual culture represents soldiers – in combat, ceremony, and communications design has a fundamental role to play.

National Army Museum, London. Courtesy of the National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Paul Raftery (1).jpg

Visitors to the recently re-opened National Army Museum in London will witness the story of the British army told through some 2,500 objects that include uniforms, weapons, vehicles, medical equipment, posters, photography and paintings. The museum’s re-launch – following a three-year, £23 million transformation supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund – hopes to bring its collection to a broader audience.

Speaking ahead of the museum’s re-opening to the public, the National Army Museum’s director general Janice Murray explained that the redeveloped space responds directly to visitor feedback. “Visitors told us they hated the building,” she says. “It was dark, dingy, and closed up. In response we have tried to make it as light an airy as possible.”

Architects BDP were responsible for an extensive overhaul of the museum building – a purpose-built structure, opened in 1971, on the Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea – opening up gallery areas and bringing light and space into what by all accounts was a gloomy interior.

Furthermore, the museum’s collection has been reorganized thematically as opposed to the chronological approach of the museum’s previous incarnation. Rather than visitors taking in 400 years of the army’s history from 1640 to the present day in one long sequence, the museum has five permanent thematic galleries: Soldier, Army, Battle, Society, and Insight, with each space offering a different perspective on the British army.

The Soldier gallery focuses on the stories of individual servicemen and women, bringing the testimony of soldiers to life with an eclectic range of artefacts. This gallery seeks to answer the question “What does it feel like to be a soldier?”

Soldier gallery, NAM. Courtesy of the National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Richard Lea-Hair  (2).jpg

Meanwhile, the Battle gallery explores the theatres of conflict in which the British army has engaged through its history. As well as plenty of military hardware on display – illustrating the evolution of battlefield technology over the years – interactive installations explore how military tactics have proved crucial to the army’s success (or failure).

Particularly striking is the ‘Total War’ room of the gallery, in which a huge display cabinet bristles with guns from the First and Second World Wars. Additionally, an interactive tank allows visitors to experience the teamwork and skill required in the field.

Army is perhaps the most conventional of the museum’s spaces. Here the visitor charts the history of the British Army from its origins in the English Civil War, through the 18th and 19th centuries, the two world wars, towards the present day. The gallery explores the organisation of the army and its hierarchy with displays on rank insignia and regimental badges.

The Society gallery is full of the material culture inspired and influenced by the army. Here placards from anti-war demonstrations sit alongside military-influenced fashion and wartime propaganda to explore the multi-faceted responses to the British army. Through the range of objects, half of which are being displayed for the first time, the gallery addresses the ambivalence towards the army through history and geographies.

Society gallery, NAM. Courtesy of the National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Richard Lea-Hair  (10).jpg

Downstairs, between the main body of the museum and the Templer study centre, the Insight gallery offers an in-depth examination of the impact that the army has had throughout the world via a series of display cases containing artefacts from a particular region – including Germany, the Punjab, Ghana, and Sudan with which the British army has a connection.

Devising the most engaging way of displaying the museum’s extraordinary collection was the task of Event, a leading visitor experience agency. Esther Dugdale, Event creative director, explains that the agency was involved in the project from the earliest stages, defining the ‘masterplan’ to open up the building and the conceptual approach to exhibitions. Event then engaged architects BDP to translate the overarching vision into the building scheme.

Dugdale says Event’s priority was to create a museum that appealed to families and casual visitors, as well as to school groups and those with a link to the army – in the process correcting some of the more unpopular aspects of the museum’s design and navigation. “It’s been an exciting process to open up the building,” she comments. “We have transformed to visitor experience in the museum – the space feels accessible and engaging.”

Reflecting on the decision to move away from a rigidly chronological approach to five thematic galleries, Dugdale continues: “Although there are still elements of chronology in the museum, the idea was to create a series of experiences, a series of individual immersive encounters, each of which has a different identity and different atmosphere. And to use the collection and fantastic archive to tell really powerful visual stories.”

For Dugdale it was important that the museum could break away from what she calls “the traditional military museum approach” and show that whilst conflict is an aspect of a soldier’s experience, it is just one element of what the army as a whole represents. “The National Army Museum directors wanted to make people think about how our army is a tool of our government that is used in our name,” she says. “They didn’t shy away from addressing issues for different audiences. It’s certainly interesting to do a museum about the army that isn’t just emotional response to conflict.”

The relationship between Event and the project architects BDP was crucial in realising the museum’s transformation. Whilst Dugdale admits that, as with any complex project, there were “moments of tension” between her Event team and BDP, fundamentally both parties understood and appreciated the challenge of improving visitor experience within the building.

Main Atrium of National Army Museum, London. Courtesy of the National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Paul Raftery (6).jpg

One key intervention introduced by BDP was to overhaul the museum’s frontage, introducing significant amounts of glazing to allow light into the atrium at the same time as moving the visitor entrance, which was somewhat hidden at the side of the building, to the front where it leads directly into a spacious foyer. “It [the existing building] had a very austere frontage, mainly concrete trellising. There were windows behind the concrete but over time they had become closed off. It certainly wasn’t conducive to an exhibition environment. The dark, maze like route from the street to the museum offered no hint of its internal life,” says a BDP spokesperson.

“We did quite a lot of work to bring the visitor facilities and the public spaces to the front of the building so that we could open up the whole façade,” he continues. “Then we cut the atrium front to back to make the connections between spaces and to make it much more open plan and allow light to flood in through the roof lights.”

Due to the building’s concrete frame, this ‘opening up’ proved a significant structural challenge that involved a great deal of, now hidden, strengthening steel work. “People might look at [the façade] and think that not a lot has changed,” adds the spokesperson. “However, that was a conscious decision – to revitalize the building in a way that doesn’t fundamentally change it. It’s about a continuity and people’s memories. The shortcomings of the original have been addressed but the good points are still there.

To present the museum’s rich collection in a coherent and visitor-friendly way within an inviting and accessible building is the concept underpinning the three-year transformation of the National Army Museum.

“I don’t think you can understand British history if you don’t understand the history of the British army,” said the museum’s director Janice Murray. “The British army, in many ways, has shaped the country and world that we live in today, and I hope we have captured some of that in the museum.”

Likewise, you can’t hope to understand the British army without an appreciation of how the design of equipment, transport, clothing, and communications has evolved through its history. The National Army Museum offers a powerful testament to the experience of soldiering through the army’s material and visual culture.