The Royal Air Force Museum has had an overhaul, with a whole new visitor experience launching a couple of weeks ago.
For the avoidance of doubt, that's the RAF Museum in Hendon, not the RAF Museum at Cosford in the West Midlands (which I visited last summer). If you're a Londoner you've probably been to our museum at least once, probably more. But if you haven't been recently then definitely two and possibly three of the hangars have changed utterly since your last visit.
The first change is how you get in. Previously you'd enter through the gates on Grahame Park Road, then wander over to the building of your choice to start your tour. Today everyone is funnelled towards the new building, Hangar 1, via some not entirely obvious signs. Most of the former grassy frontage is now car park, bordered by a sinuous earthwork installed to prevent anyone entering the museum via an undesignated route. I noticed that the earthwork by the staff gate has already been significantly eroded by visitors squeezing through to avoid a long detour, as what probably looked good on the architect's drawing board has proven annoyingly impractical in real life.
Hangar 1 used to be the gloomy Battle of Britain exhibit, and is now a shiny new shed containing considerably fewer planes. The big draw is an exhibition celebrating this year's big centenary: RAF Stories, The First 100 Years. It starts off with a diversity of hats, then opens up into a medium-sized gallery packed with all aspects of aerial armed forcery. We're shown a helicopter and some bombs and a few engines and a token number of suspended aircraft, along with epaulettes and badges and other smaller tokens.
Prominent here are several full-size cut-outs of historical personnel, from pilots to chefs, carefully chosen to prove that women and minorities do exist. A cockpit simulator for budding pilots, at £6 a time, is likely to have a queue building up at the back. But perhaps most importantly there's lots for younger children to do, from hands-on science displays with flashing buttons to tiny model aircraft to clamber into. With its little bit of everything, the gallery struck me as a useful taster, and perhaps as far as certain parents with toddlers ever need to go.
A long corridor along the back of the gift shop continues the interactive theme. It's entitled 'First to the Future’, and aims to take the RAF's story past 2018 by focusing on challenges to come. It was certainly popular yesterday with older schoolchildren hunting for something to fill the time on their end of term trip. But I somehow managed to find a spare terminal or three, and had a go at fighting off a cyberattack, building a virtual plane in response to an endurance challenge, and searching for terrorist targets by drone. Alas the cyber 'simulation' turned out to be a chain of games with no real-world relevance, my virtual plane glitched before it flew, and everyone seemed to be giving up one minute into the drone sim after completely failing to work out what to do with the controls.
I remember visiting this hall two years ago with my youngest nephew (who, incidentally, has since got a job working on the technical side of aviation, so that worked well). We both enjoyed the twists and turns of the Battle of Britain exhibit, and all the old newsreels, and walking down through the fuselage of a bomber to experience what it was like inside. A huge Sunderland flying boat is all that remains of the former exhibition, now forming the centrepiece of a 60-seat cafe serving hot drinks and light snacks, as well as jellybeans wrapped up as emergency rations. The new space is a lot more experience-friendly for a modern audience, but no longer as relevant, and the old men on the internet forums are livid.
Hangar 6 is the other big change. It used to hold 'Milestones of Flight', a canter through aviation history from biplanes to fighter jets, complete with numerous dangling examples of the real thing. It only opened in 2003, but last autumn it was emptied to make way for a slightly sparser exhibit called ‘The RAF in an ‘Age of Uncertainty’. That's code for campaigns from 1980 to the present day, including the Falklands, Iraq and the Balkans, even including a quick flash of Donald Trump on the big screen. Tellingly the exhibit is 'Supported by the State of Kuwait', presumably because the original Lottery grant only supported its first incarnation (which I preferred).
Meanwhile, if you've not been for a few years, Hangar 2 is the other alteration. This used to hold the biplanes, and was only intermittently open, but 100 years after 1914 was transformed into a full-on exhibit about The First World War In The Air. It's very well done, with what I'd say is the right mix of screens and exhibits, although the swarm of infants from an academy in Acton didn't seem quite so interested.
One other proper new thing is The Airfield, which used to be the car park but has now been turfed over to form a central space. The museum's blurb calls it "a new green heart of the community in Colindale", although currently it's mostly yellow and seemed to be lacking somewhat in purpose (except as somewhere for the secondary school crowd to play British Bulldog). Close by is another new cafe, called Claude's, a replacement for the much larger NAAFI-ish canteen which evidently didn't fit the new ambience. And finally there's the enormous Hangars 3, 4 and 5, mainstay of the museum since 1972, whose somewhat worn but treasured aircraft displays surely don't need describing.
In summary the RAF Museum is still one of London's best free museums, and has taken a well-considered nudge in the direction of modernity with this recent refresh. Those who like stuff will prefer the older hangars, and those who prefer experience will prefer the new, which means they've probably got the balance right. I'm not a fan of the external layout changes, which make arriving and departing more of a chore. But so long as the RAF needs recruits, and the justification for a free military collection remains, a trip to Colindale will always be a good day out.