...To London to see the Queen!
Er, no actually (surprisingly) - I popped down to London for a few days and took in a couple of excellent museums, Bletchley Park and Duxford Air Museum.
In case you don't know, Bletchley Park was the wartime center for British code cracking - it was here that the infamous German Enigma code machine was decoded. In time honoured British tradition, this amazing feat of ingenuity and technological wizardry was done by some cardigan wearing eccentrics in a shed!
It's da bombe! It really is actually - this contraption is called a Bombe and was instrumental in cracking Nazi codes. It's a sort of electromechanical computer designed to replicate the workings of the infamous German 'Enigma' machine.
While great emphasis is, of course, placed on the British code breaking efforts during World War Two, Bletchley has many additional attractions. We chose to take in the National Museum of Computing while we were there and were treated to an nostalgic collection of ground breaking computers ranging from the ZX Spectrum to some very strange and wonderful gizmos that I have never seen before (but were landmarks in the story of computing).
Alan Turing is considered to be the father of modern computing, he was key to the decrypting of the Nazi codes but his association with Bletchley Park is the reason that the National Museum of Computing is also lodged there. This ingenius memorial to the great man is made of thousands and thousands of pieces of slate!
Duxford is the nation's premier air museum and is part of the Imperial War Museum. It houses a absolutely enormous collection of historic aircraft - from a prototype Concord to a simply breathtaking B52 bomber!
There are 5 hangers in total, each with it's own particular purpose or theme. These include the beautiful American Air Museum, the Land Warfare Hall and the stunning Working Museum where exhibits are restored and repaired!
Just one section of one hanger - Hanger 1 is the Airspace collection, with a host of historic British and Commonwealth airscraft from early flight to the present day.
I took video footage of both these amazing attractions and will be working on a couple of short movies which I will post up over the next two weeks. All I can really say though is that these museums should definately be on your list of places to visit - they are fantastic!
The 'Memphis Belle'
This is really a tale of two museums. Earlier in my 'summer' (don't go there!) holiday I was lucky enough to visit the Churchill Cabinet Rooms in London, about which I will write a small report later. This had a very big influence on the impression I got when visiting Eden Camp, so much so that I could not help but constantly be making comparisons in the quality of the presentation between the two museums. The following report, therefore, is somewhat coloured by the earlier visit, and so please take any perceived negativity as the unfortunate result of having visited one very best museums I have ever visited just before visiting Eden Camp. Apologies to everyone involved with Eden Camp if my comments seem unfair in the circumstances.
Eden Camp - what's it all about?
Eden Camp - in it's own words - is "...no ordinary Museum - Not another Military Museum - Not a glass showcase Museum - We have reconstructed scenes using movement, lighting, sound, smells, even smoke machines to transport you back in time, to make you feel that you are there taking part in history."
At it's heart Eden Camp is a theme museum, in that it uses it's own history as a basis to present a 'moment in time'. In this case, Eden Camp was formally a WW2 prisoner of war camp housing Italian and German POWs from 1942-1948. But while the camp offers an authentic location it has opted to act as a time capsule, preserving the sights and sounds of Britain in the Second World War rather than resting on it's laurels as a POW camp.
A living museum? Not quite...
To me, a 'living museum' is a place where historians and archaeologists attempt to recreate a period in history using a location and period objects to not only capture a moment in time, but to animate that moment - as if the visitor were watching a scene from history played out before them. Eden Camp fails to come under this category of museum, quite simply because it actually is exactly what it says - in it's own literature - that it isn't, a 'glass showcase Museum'.
It's rather a shame, because all the authentic artefacts are in place in order to make a 'living museum', it's just that Eden Camp chooses to present them in a static manner which the visitor must file past as 'exhibits'.
However, to be fair to Eden Camp and it's staff, the commitments and resources required to turn a museum into a fully fledged living museum are enormous, not least in the costs involved in training staff and actors. So Eden Camp - for the time being - remains principally a 'glass case' museum to the general visitor, but does go very much further to interact with it's educational visitors.
There is a lot of information and artefacts held at Eden Camp that is of interest to the enthusiastic amateur historian. Enjoy the History Channel? Then you will enjoy Eden Camp.
I chose the above statement carefully - as anyone who has the level of interest to sit through a historical documentary will be better prepared to deal with the large amount of information which is presented at the museum in the form of text and photographs. More casual - and younger - visitors may not fair so well with this type of information.
About 70% - I would estimate - of Eden Camp's historical material is presented in the form of printed passages and illustrations in glass cabinets which decorate the passageways through the huts. This form of display is certainly not for everyone, young children and teenagers in particular will find it hard to deal with the overwhelming amount of reading there is to be done. [There is, additionally, an issue of accessibility. On my visit we had a teenage boy in a wheelchair and his family following us around - the display cabinets are generally hung at approximately three-and-a-half to four feet off the floor, the young lad could barely reach to read the lowest part of the boards.]
The remainder of the items and displays at Eden Camp are either static arrangements of artefacts in cabinets, vehicles and equipment or tableau or dioramas made up of mannequins in period costume.
This inconsistency in the quality of displays, and the occasional thoughtlessness in design, is a great shame as Eden Camp definitely holds a rich and important inventory of historical objects that is it's greatest asset.
The good, the bad and the ugly...
To summarize, Eden Camp as a quality historical attraction has three principal strengths; it's excellent collection of authentic exhibits, it's ambition in covering historical events and aspects of World War 2 that other museums overlook (such as the Bevin Boys, the home front and the Great Escape) and it's truly wonderful collection of personal artefacts and photographs donated to the museum by ex-servicemen and women and their families.
As a museum, again Eden Camp score very highly because of the historical information and exhibits it has, plus it's very good educational facilities and arrangements.
However, this undeniably splendid collection is somewhat let down by cramped and sometimes chaotic display designs, the overuse of textual and photographic material - which is sometimes duplicated -and the obsolescence of it's dissemination of information, which is very out of place in this multimedia and interactive age.
Neither must I ignore the fact that Eden Camp has repeatedly won awards for the quality of it's museum facilities and exhibits.
That said, I do sincerely believe that some of the museum's greatest attractions - of premier quality and unique in this country - are being underused and hidden away by a general lack of consistently good display design.
Above: Impressive Russian 152mm howitzer, one of the many excellent static display items dispersed between the museum huts. Without a doubt the 25 or so vehicles and many more authentic items of equipment dotted around the camp are a impressive collection by any standards.
The interest of the public in the idea of Eden Camp is unquestioned - in fact on the day I went there was hardly a free space in the car park and there were cues to enter the display huts. But I would hope that the organizers are not content to rest on their laurels and are urgently looking into how they can capture the interest of today's children in order for them to understand the unique sacrifice their grand and great grand parents made in the course of the Second World War.
Postscript - Eden Camp, so what would I change or do?
To my mind there were three big problems with Eden Camp:-
- It's obsolete display formats, which mostly failed to reach out and stimulate younger visitors
- The duplication of information in it's 'museum within a museum' section
- Accessibility issues for both the disabled and non-English speaking visitors
OK, so what would I do to improve Eden Camp? Here's a short list of my ideas:
- Urgently review the accessibility of display items for the disabled - in particular, consider lowering the display cabinets half a foot (at least) or consider a (multi-lingual) audio-tour mechanism
- Replace a percentage of textural and photographic material in each hut with a large screen monitor displaying period news reels, propaganda and public information films (a moving picture has the ability to impart in a shorter time a particular point, and reinforces the idea that the artefacts on display were really used and how they were used)
- These same screens can be used to display interactive quizzes based on the information held within it's own particular hut during educational visits
- Do away with the 'museum with a museum' which largely duplicates information already held in other areas
- Create a new multi-hut museum telling the story of AXIS prisoners held in the UK - visitors could then compare this to the treatment of Allied prisoners (see below)
- The 'Great Escape' section should be given more space and prominence - together with an Axis POW display, this would be a absolutely unique insight into an important aspect of the war with the advantage it would be lodged on a authentic former camp. Additionally, it would be useful if the museum discussed the 'morals within war' by looking at international treaties like the 'Geneva Convention' and the role of the International Red Cross.
- The 'Human Torpedo' huts should be given more emphasis - this is a truly unique collection
This was our first visit to the Yorkshire Air Museum, despite it being - nearly - on our doorstep. It took place on a wonderfully sunny summers day, the best way to see a museum with so many outdoor exhibits (but had it rained, there were as many indoor displays to make the trip still worthwhile).
Wheelchair access is available to all displays except the top floor of the Control Tower. Wheelchairs are available on request and there are disabled toilet facilities. For detailed enquiries the museum can be contacted by phone - (44) (0) 1904 608595 - or can by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Exhibits and attractions
The museum was formally an RAF bomber base - RAF Elvington - for the duration of the Second World War, and so many of the exhibits are related to the history and theme of its role. Elvington was host to two French Squadrons, No. 346 (Guyenne) and No.347 (Tunisie), and a central piece of the main hanger is a wonderful Hadley Page Hallifax III named 'Friday the 13th' in French insignia.
The theme of bombers and bombing is reinforced by the precence of the 'Air Gunner's Memorial Room', a museum inside a museum dedicated to air gunners hosting a excellent collection of bomber gun turrets.
However, the base was used subsequent to WW2 as a strategic bomber station, and so maintaining its links with heavy bombers. This is reflected with the inclusion of many jet aircraft from the 'Cold War' era up until the most modern RAF bombers, like the Tornado GR.1 strike aircraft.
As well as the aircraft themselves are a number of historic military vehicles, the interesting station buildings themselves and the beautiful Memorial Garden, dedicated to those who lost their lives during the war.
All in all, the museum is a eclectic collection of sometimes unexpected exhibit, but it's not all military hardware and technology as there are some touching displays which emphasis the human aspect of the base, the aircraft and the history of flight.
I had a very enjoyable day at the museum, but what's more my girlfriend found the variety of displays entertaining - more so than the sometimes rather emotionless arrangement of aircraft you get in some indoor museums. There was a real sense that the museum was trying to tell you a story, and not just about the aircraft. Highlight of the visit - which illustrates perfectly the human story - was the wonderfully tranquil Memorial Garden. A very touching part of the museum that both my partner and I appreciated immensely.
Finally, another interesting feature of this museum is the very real impression that this is a 'living repository' of historic artifacts. Throughout the day and around the base one occasionally came across small groups of enthusiasts who were involved with restoration of maintenance work on several of the exhibit. We were very lucky to witness the test running of the massive jet engine on the Hadley Page Victor tanker aircraft by one large conservation group, while elsewhere one solitary enthusiast was undertaking a fascinating overhaul of a Mosquito night fighter!
The Yorkshire Air Museum was a wonderful experience, it wasn't just a 'collection' but a living community - from the chatty 'old geezers' who were glad to relate their experiences, to the oily 'spanner monkeys' tinkering with complex engineering. It was a excellent day out!
Above: Members of a Victor conservation group work furiously - watched by an appreciative
audience of enthusiasts - to test start one of the aircrafts jet engines. It was worth waiting
for as the noise was like nothing I have ever experienced - truly 'deafening'!
The Yorkshire Air Museum website - http://www.yorkshireairmuseum.co.uk/
My Flickr album of the day (118 photos) - Yorkshire Air Museum gallery