The future of small military museums?

On a recent visit to the city of York I took the opportunity to visit the refurbished York Army Museum. The museum combines the collections and stories of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Dragoon Guards. It is tucked away behind an unassuming frontage opposite Clifford’s Tower in the centre of the city. But despite its exterior this museum is, to my mind, an exemplar of where small military museums should be heading if they are survive and thrive in an increasingly challenging environment.

In the past the average regimental museum consisted of a series of glass cases full of old uniforms, weapons, dioramas and memorabilia. Supplemented in many instances by a medal room packed from floor to ceiling with the gongs of former members of the regiment.  Now don’t get me wrong, as a youngster these museums fascinated and inspired me. But the interpretation and display techniques used were a reflection of the wider world.  In those days, when video games were limited to the famous but very basic Pong, no one would have expected to see anything more advanced than a short film to enhance their museum visit.

The world has, of course, moved on since those days, and museum interpretation has kept pace. Today no self-respecting museum or heritage site is complete without audio-visual presentations, and hands-on and electronic interactive exhibits.  In a good museum these complement the original artefacts in cases, interpretive panels, timelines and other ways of allowing the visitor to access the museum’s story. Today it would be wrong not to have this blend of interpretation, or to provide it in a layered manner, allowing the visitor to approach the subject in a manner commensurate with their level of understanding or interest.  And here I return to the York Army Museum.

This gem amongst small military museums is a model for how they should be.  It reopened in May 2015 after an extensive £1million upgrade supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Employing a wide variety of interpretation techniques, it tells the story of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Dragoon Guards, and their antecedent regiments.

The initial impression on entering the building is of a traditional small museum, where an enthusiastic and helpful volunteer mans the reception desk. But heading downstairs into the main gallery space the revelation begins. Here the recent upgrade is a very evident with a bright and airy feel, clean lines and a bold interpretive approach. The main exhibition space is organised into six zones. There is an Introduction and a Timeline to help orientation. A third section called The Sharp End looks at combat, whilst a fourth covers the sprit and community of the Regimental System. The Soldiering On zone examines aspects of military culture such as bravery and duty. The final zone called The Yorkshire Soldier brings the story to a conclusion and highlights what today’s Yorkshire soldiers are doing. These act as chapters in the museum, keeping the story telling tight and provide a helpful handrail for the visitor.

Throughout the content is thoughtfully displayed. There are some stunning large artefacts such as the ‘Warhorse’ style cavalry figure (pictured above) and a 95% life-size cutaway diagram of a Second World War M4A2 Sherman.  The timeline mentioned earlier snakes around the museum showing each of the regimental histories in parallel, a very useful device to help contextualise the exhibits.  Interspersed throughout the zones are films and interactive displays, both physical and electronic, to engage all audiences. There is of course the usual collection of military uniforms, weaponry and equipment, all beautifully and imaginatively presented. Somewhat alarmingly I discovered that the three generations of rifle that I had used in my military career (from CCF cadet to regular officer) are all now museum pieces, along with various generations of uniform and personal equipment!  Finally there is a good selection of personal stories and reflections that add that important ‘individual colour’ to such a place.

My opening premise was that this museum is an exemplar.  Ok it doesn’t have the impact or scale of the Imperial War Museum or the National Army Museum (both of which have or are going though their own upgrades, and perhaps more on them in future episodes). But the York Army Museum doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. What it does, it does very well, and that is to be a modern and forward looking regimental museum.  I think this can be put down to the sensible and pragmatic approach that seems to have been taken. There can be few regimental museums, or other small military museums, that can remain viable on their own. The sort of partnership seen here between two different regimental associations allows economies of scale and has, I suspect, also aided financial stability. The combined regimental stories, delivered as they are using modern interpretive approaches make for an accessible, varied and entertaining offering. The effect is a product that other small military museums, and for that matter other smaller museums covering other subject areas, could learn a great deal from.