National Army Museum Location: Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4HT [map] Open: 10am - 5:30pm Admission: free Brief summary: military history/subliminal recruitment Current state: refreshed and refurbished Website:www.nam.ac.uk Social media:Twitter/Facebook/Instagram Time to set aside: about an hour
The National Army Museum was opened by the Queen in 1971, and seems to have stayed mostly off-radar ever since, despite its size. In fact it's located 10 minutes walk away from Sloane Square station, immediately adjacent to the Royal Hospital where the Chelsea Pensioners live, on a quiet road most Londoners would never stumble down. I last visited in 2009 and gave the place a mostly positive write-up, even if some of the exhibits felt a little outdated. Three years ago the entire building was closed for a major refit - specifically a complete internal gutting and a rethink in the way exhibits would be displayed. Now that long refurbishment is finally over and the museum reopened last week, just in time for the Easter holidays, and the NAM is back on-radar again.
It all looks rather different when you arrive. The brutalist building has had its ground and first floor mini-windows ripped out and replaced by welcoming sheets of glass, through which those sipping coffee can now gaze. The armoured vehicles, cannons and flagpoles that used to sit outside have been removed, and the concrete bollards have been replaced and upgraded in favour of more defensive flower beds. Most crucially the entrance is no longer an apologetic door up the side but a swish automatic portal facing the road, considerably more welcoming than before. It all looks even more different inside.
The museum now has one of those Wow! moments when you walk in, much like the new Design Museum in South Kensington, and for pretty much the same reason. A large proportion of the previous interior has been removed to create a sweeping multi-flooratrium, providing a colourful panorama from basement up to third floor level, plus a large lobby containing only the bag check and the information desk. If you haven't been before you'll be impressed. But if you remember how things were before, this might be the moment you start thinking "hang on, this corner of the building was full of gallery space before, and now it's mostly air".
There are five galleries, each themed, whereas previously the museum arranged its exhibits chronologically. Before the upgrade you'd start at the bottom and work your way up from 1066 on the ground floor to the 21st century at the top, with the army's story told campaign by campaign along a series of gentling sloping corridors and warren-like galleries. The English Civil War, the American War of Independence, the two World Wars and even the Falkland Islands all got lengthy mentions, and I remember learning quite a lot by reading all the panels on the way round. Those who prefer their information on the lighter side will be relieved to know there's none of that fusty, comprehensive, verbose vibe here any more.
The first fresh gallery is called Soldier, and was my favourite of the five, providing insight into the life of a conscript from signing up to passing out. A lot of emphasis is placed on camaraderie and the collective experience, rather than actually fighting, because that's what the majority of a soldier's life is like. Quotations from a handful of ordinary soldiers are scattered throughout, not all of them positive, while the presence of female recruits appears to get remarkably short shrift, both here and throughout the rest of the building. The highlight is probably the virtual drill sergeant who puts up-for-it visitors through their paces, then gets shirty with those who wander away.
The Army gallery tells the story of the evolution of the ground-based military from the 17th century to the present, in skimmy detail, with large infographics used to cover some walls, and a brief selection of uniforms in glass cases to fill the space within. As for the Battle gallery, this takes a similar approach and skips lightly over campaigns which in the previous museum would have merited considerable exposition. Not even World War Two merits much of a display, although there is a cutaway tank to climb inside and some camo gear to try on, perhaps with a military selfie in mind. I was pleased to see the enormous Siborne scale model of the Battle of Waterloo still given due prominence, its undulating fields and tin soldiers now behind glass, and with a short (unengaging) video about tactics projected on the far side. Napoleon's horse is in the cabinet alongside, or rather its skeleton, though you may have to hunt for the label which reveals how amazing this exhibit is.
Up at the top of the building, the Society gallery takes a rather different approach and considers the army as "a cultural and military force that impacts on our customs, technologies and values". This is a good excuse for a lot of posters and newspaper front covers, plus a few artefacts from Action Men to scout badges, even a juke box with a selection of of pro- and anti-war songs. As for the remembrance corner with poppies, this is sensitively done and by no means jingoistic, indeed none of the museum is, with overt mention of "heroes" muted throughout. The Insight gallery promises a global perspective on British military action, but instead comes across as a few magnificent artefacts with not much of a tale attached. And yes there's still an art gallery, in a temporary exhibition smartly entitled War Paint, but whose paintings are rather dimly lit and merit only a cursory wander.
The former coffee bar has been significantly upgraded and is now a large airy cafe serving "tasty British fare". I'd say it covers an equivalent area to the entire 18th century in the former museum, which may not be ideal, but offers tea drinkers, cake-grazers and soup-slurpers a pleasant place to perch. Down in the basement is an educational area, already well used, while behind the shop is the only activity you have to pay for - PlayBase - which offers hour-long sessions to the under nines. The presence of an assault course is something you might expect, whereas the Cookhouse, Quartermaster store and Fieldcraft zones are part of a more inclusive message that it's fun for everyone in the army, because 2030's recruits might just be here.
On leaving I was intrigued to note that my 2017 visit had lasted only half as long as my 2009 visit, and not just because of the loss of internal floor space. I could best conclude that you'll enjoy the National Army Museum most if you don't remember what was here previously, because it looks proper impressive now, and an all-round immersive experience to boot, plus it's much better suited to younger visitors. But what's on display is more shallow and snippety than before, focused more on the visual than the written word, and more about the big picture than strategic detail. How very 21st century to prioritise the footsoldier over the expert.