The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Royal Engineers Museum, a trip to Kent



I’m not quite certain if any of you, our readers, have ever been down to Gillingham, Kent and visited the Royal Engineers Museum. It’s certainly not a place many people seem to know about, unless military type history is of interest. It certainly seems to be undervalued even by its surrounding community, many of which have family in the RE!

I was lucky enough to pay a visit on Saturday. I must say, it was not just a social call, and the Documentation Officer who was working the weekend shift, a lovely man by the name of Andrew, knew I was coming. A friend of a friend, and a retired Royal Engineer himself, works closely with the museum and was only too happy to get me a ‘special tour’!

Andrew was lovely when he showed me around the museum, explaining how the galleries had come to be, and new improvements (and the ones they hope to do) and anything of particular notice. It’s definitely not the tour the school groups get, and it’s clear that the museum does not offer daily tours or such, so I was very happy for the go round. I knew only a little about the museum prior to my visit. If you’ve heard of it, but not been to see it, no doubt you have no idea what’s there!

The place is massive, to start with. The museum originally started as just a reference library for the Corps in 1812. Over the years, however, the Corps began to collect large amounts of historical objects, as you would expect. This is the history of the Naval and Air Force museums too. The Royal Engineers Museum, however, didn’t obtain ‘Designated’ status until 1998, when it was acknowledge as having a large storehouse of significant items to the history of the Corps and the military. It now has over 500,000 objects, many well known!

They have on display (very carefully, I might add) Wellington’s Waterloo map. Many items attributed to Charles Gordon on his travels, a Brennan torpedo, and 25 Victoria Crosses (of the 52 that have ever been awarded to Royal Engineers).

The museum is what you might imagine of a military type exhibition. However, a great deal of work is in the process of being done to improve the galleries (most of which were done in the 1980s when the museum moved into its current building). The first three entrance galleries, which describe the history of engineering in Britain (all the way back to Roman times) have been redone, which many of the objects kept from the original displays. The collection of the museum includes many, many models, because the Royal Engineers used to create a model of a project for final sign off by the officials before work could begin. It must make a visit by children very enjoyable, since they can look at the original models on display while the educator talks about the history. The first galleries also show a clear view on how engineering 2000 years ago has evolved and how much has actually stayed the same!
From there, the 1980s style galleries pick up, show the history of the Royal Engineers from their founding through each country and conflict they were part of.

There is an area dedicated to the period in which the RE’s were in Indian and an effort has been made to link the importance to the development of Indian and Pakistan’s own Military Engineers. Andrew explained there India has its own museum, and most of the objects of importance are there. Only a few have been maintained by Britain, but the museum in Gillingham has had a great deal of positive feedback in how it’s displayed and how they tell the story. Always good to hear!

From the main building, the museum winds into a longer building which is not currently well used. They have high hopes to take advantage of the raised ceiling and put in two levels (it’s currently just the ground floor with an open area above). This will allow them to create a proper library (at present, the library is scattered across two sites, one of which is on the nearby Military Grounds and is not accessible by the public). It will also increase gallery and storage space.

When they do this, they will, as Andrew said, have to redo the galleries below!
From there, the visitor enters the large Model Bridge Gallery, which unfortunately is quite poorly displayed and an area that most of the staff dislike. It’s very large, but very dark and does not seem to tell an obvious story. Most of the artefacts are lost in the space, and most visitors zone in on the two large vehicles on display, rather than anything to do with bridge building!

It is a blessing to leave the dark space and move into the large centre of the main building. Here is more of the typical military museum that most are used to. It looks very similar to the central area of the Imperial War Museum in London, with large vehicles and many text panels. You also get the sense that you have moved into a more modern area, leaving the past of the Royal Engineers behind (the last exhibit before the Model Bridge is dedicated to the RE’s around WWII). This large area is two stories and the upper level, which is a series of raised platforms and walkways, allows the viewer to see the vehicles on display below. It also leads to the final gallery of the museum, also recently redone.

This was a surprise I wasn’t expecting when Andrew led me up there. It’s very light and open (there’s a large skylight above) and it’s clearly dedicated to current Royal Engineers and the work they are doing around the world, but particularly in the Middle East. The museum has taken an interesting approach in designing this new exhibit. They specifically got in touch with current serving members, or recently retired, and asked them if they had objects to donate. It took some effort to convince the Corps that current objects were important to a museum; they kept trying to donate old things from their grandfathers’ time! A good collection of modern objects, specific to the Engineers (such as a toolkit) are on display in class cabinets. The showpiece is definitely the interactive screen however, which must measure at least four feet by three and is controlled by a large touch screen TV. As much information as the current Corps would allow is on the screen.

The ‘Corps Today’ Gallery only opened in September of 2011, and so the information on the program dates as recently as June 2011. It describes current projects of the RE’s, but its highlight is the satellite views of Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan. The Royal Engineers began to construct it in 2006, and it has grown exponentially since then. The visitor can scroll through the satellite views to see the camp evolve. The Camp currently accommodates 21,000 people, but it is still growing. I have no doubt that the child visitor must love this new exhibit, since Andrew and I had quite an enjoyable time playing with it ourselves!

There are many things planned for the Royal Engineers Museum in the years to come. As well as the building work and gallery updates they hope to do, their new Education Officer (a Canadian) is pushing towards more work within the surrounding community and with schools. The museum has much to offer the National Curriculum, with its emphasis on the wars, engineering work and the military. Previous ‘family events’ are going to lead into a more updated Theme Day, where an aspect of the Royal Engineers will be presented to the public, with a focus on attracting local families. The museum only sees about 15,000 visitors a year, and it is there hope to increase that number in the next few years, especially amongst the general public (many of their visitors have a connection to the Corps already).

It was certainly not busy the day I was there, but there were a few families in with young boys who seemed to be enjoying themselves. Hopefully, this is a sign of good things to come.

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