LONDON A-Z An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums National Army Museum
Location: Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4HT [map] Open: 10am - 5:30pm Admission: free Brief summary: military history/subliminal recruitment Website:www.national-army-museum.ac.uk Time to set aside: a couple of hours
It's amazing how many museums in London (and elsewhere) are dedicated to our armed forces. Maybe that's because Britain's military has an auspicious history stretching back across the centuries. Maybe it's because because generations of retired soldiers have an awful lot of battle-related memorabilia. Maybe it's because a grateful nation wants to pay tribute to Our Brave Lads, especially the dead ones. Or maybe it's because Britain will always need more cannon fodder, so somebody's got to make the job sound enticing.
It's surprisingly big, the National Army Museum, especially for a museum you've never heard of let alone seen. You'll find it off the beaten track in Chelsea, next to the far more impressive Royal Hospital (where the Pensioners live). The first building on the museum site belonged to Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister, but a German bomb put paid to that and its modern replacement has all the architectural charm of a 1960s power station. At the entrance there's the usual security search, and then any bags you might be carrying are whisked away into a rear office for safe keeping, no questions asked.
A door to the left leads to the special exhibition gallery, which at the moment (last weekend coming up!) features Helmand: The Soldier's Story. I entered expecting propaganda, and a screen near the start looping video of the Twin Towers collapse did nothing to change my mind. But then things improved, and this was because all of the exhibits had been selected by the ground troops and officers, not some desk-bound curator far from the desert frontline. Weapons, diaries, a medical tent, first-hand accounts of the relentless pressure, even a waistcoat of gun-webbing to try on. The most evocative installation was nothing military, just a collection of canvas beds that act as the batallion's home from home. Stacked up in two IKEA clothes racks were some pairs of camouflage trousers, a green towel, a can of 7 Up, a deodorant and a tube of toothpaste. Ordinary people using everyday objects in extraordinary circumstances, and hoping that they'll make it home at the end of their tour of duty.
Enough of the modern stuff. The museum tells the story of the British army (past the coffee bar, through the souvenir shop) starting way back in 1066. It scampers through the next half-millennium incredibly fast, choosing to kick off in detail with the English Civil War. To its credit, the displays are set very much in a historical context. There are no endless cabinets of tedious weaponry, although illiterate visitors might wish there was a bit more to look at rather than read. I had the entire Making of Britain gallery to myself, bar a brief visit from an attendant making sure I wasn't slashing the waxwork hand gunner. I took the opportunity while nobody was looking to try on an old Roundhead helmet, and yes, I looked as utterly ridiculous as I expected.
The central staircase ramps gently upward, all part of the ongoing timeline, so the American War of Independence is played out ascending from one floor to the next. On the first floor I discovered how the British Army changed the world. A bold claim but, given our Empire's sprawling tentacles across Europe, Africa, India and the old Commonwealth, undoubtedly true. I was especially impressed by a 50m2scale model of the Battle of Waterloo, painstakingly created from first hand accounts in the 1830s by Captain William Siborne. He exhibited his field of tin soldiers in Piccadilly to great acclaim, until Wellington took offence because it didn't match his self-centred view of the truth. Today William's rolling hills appear in a dark recess alongside the full-size skeleton of Napoleon's horse... but that's museums for you.
Two world wars follow, with an emphasis on the enlisted Tommy's point of view. The tale's also told at the Imperial War Museum across the river (and they have a much better trench), but this felt more human. It was also refreshing to see due recognition given to the war in Korea, Burma, Suez and other global conflicts generally overlooked. Even the Falklands got a look in at the top of the stairs. It's always unnerving to discover that something you remember now has a place in a museum, but even scarier was the wall-sized video of Mrs Thatcher proclaiming "Rejoice!" (thankfully briefly). Maggie aside, the jingoistic angle was well muted.
The final gallery is being refurbished for opening in September, and I believe a revamped Study Centre opened for the first time yesterday. Don't ask how many helicopters could have been bought with the money. And don't buy your impressionable grandson a pack of NAM tattoos from the shop. But be reassured, they give you your bag back at the end. And the bit in the middle's well worth trooping round. by tube: Sloane Square by bus: 170