National Army Museum's reinvention is a thought-provoking triumph - review 

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War Paint: Brushes with Conflict at the National Army Museum
War Paint: Brushes with Conflict at the National Army Museum

Hidden away in Chelsea, the National Army Museum has long been regarded as a poor relation to the Imperial War Museum. Where the latter has reinvented itself, with huge success, as a kind of anti-war museum (though one offering large amounts of heavy-weaponry), the Army Museum has suffered from an image as a rather fusty, under-visited, official mouthpiece for the armed forces. Never mind that it is an entirely independent institution that has regularly attracted audiences of 250,000 per annum: at a time when Britain’s umbilical relationship to its armed forces has been stretched almost to breaking point by two decades of unpopular wars, questions of image matter enormously.

The first thing you see on approaching the museum after its £23.75 million, three-year redevelopment is a poster proclaiming Make Knit-Wear Not War, showing a Vivienne Westwood “anti-war” jacket. Inside the newly opened-out Sixties building, with its five permanent themed galleries and temporary exhibitions space set round an airy central atrium, the faces on the life-size cut-out figures smiling at us from the opening display seem to belong entirely to women and members of the ethnic minorities. A quote from the Duke of Wellington, meanwhile, sets the self-deprecating tone for much of what follows: “The man who enlists in the British Army is, in general, the most drunken and probably the worst of the trade or profession to which he belongs.”

National Army Museum: recruitment poster in the Army gallery

This clearly is a military museum that is bending over backwards to be as un-bellicose, anti-heroic and inclusive as possible. Yet it’s one that also provides plenty of space for the words and experiences of the soldiers themselves.

Recruiting poster, Highlanders, c.1920 Credit: National Army Museum

A gallery display entitled “Soldiers” provides a social history of soldiering from the Napoleonic Wars to today, with an emphasis on how little fundamentally changes: the tedium, discomfort, lack of freedom, the endless pressing and polishing of kit, but also the life-enhancing camaraderie. It’s told through a wonderfully quirky array of artefacts, from an imposing suite of mahogany furniture taken by Lord Raglan to the Crimea to a packet of condoms once owned by SAS-author Andy McNab, used for carrying water during the Gulf War. It climaxes with a jagged panorama on the realities of battle, a collage of explosions and fragmentary images with the recollections of soldiers on the soundtrack ranging from the lofty – “It was as if heaven, earth and hell had united in the destruction of friend and foe alike” – to the bathetic – “What goes through your head? Not a lot really.”

The section on the structure and purpose of the army provides extraordinary statistics that back up the notion of the army as a longstanding multi-ethnic organisation: in the Second World War, for example, 2.5 million Indian soldiers served in the British forces, as opposed to 1.5 million native British conscripts and 224,000 regulars. Society and the Army looks at the impact of military imagery on the broader culture through a vibrant array of popular ephemera: film posters, album covers, fashion, war memorial designs, poppy appeal displays. While you might wonder what a photograph of Jimi Hendrix sporting a vintage hussar’s jacket tells us about the army, it backs up, if to a miniscule degree, the museum’s contention that the army “shaped the country we live in today”.

Jimi Hendrix by Gered Mankowitz, London, 1967 Credit: National Army Museum

Younger visitors are offered a fine array of interactive diversions, from testing your parade ground skills against the barked orders of a life-sized digitalised sergeant to assembling an assault rifle and monitoring developments on a six metre-square vintage model of the Battle of Waterloo.

Finally, though, the new Army Museum is a masterfully designed exercise in double-bluffing: by highlighting the grimmer aspects of military life and the horrors of war, it leaves you with a really rich sense of the “culture” of the army and a warm feeling towards the institution itself. A soldier’s contention that “the moment you put that uniform on you felt part of something big and powerful”, will have a lot more resonance for most people when they leave this thought-provoking museum than when they entered.

Free admission. Details: nam.ac.uk