National Army Museum closes its doors to begin 21st century transformation

By Ben Miller | 01 April 2014

Janice Murray, the Director General of the National Army Museum, on the relief of being able to modernise the museum with a confirmed £11.5 million grant

A photo of a plan for the outside of a large modern museum
The new-look National Army Museum will open in London in 2016 after winning £11.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund© NAM
When the National Army Museum closed the doors to its Chelsea home yesterday evening, there was a sense of relief among staff at the building where the institution has been based since 1971.

A bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £11.5 million, paying for a critical overhaul of a museum with no kitchen, café or learning facilities for thousands of schoolchildren, was given initial support in 2012.

The subsequent two-year wait, rewarded with a confirmed grant earlier this week, had been somewhat anxious.

“It would have taken a little bit of time to re-engage,” says Museum Director Janice Murray, of the lengthy hiatus.

“You’ve got your main plan, which is everything going according to plan, and then it’s ‘what’s your plan b?’, which is something you’ve always got in the back of your mind.

"You don’t want to put a lot of resources and energy into that, because you’re hoping you don’t have to go there.

“On the other hand, you can’t ignore it because one day you might find yourself having to do it."

The green light means Murray and her team can now concentrate on pouring their energies into redeveloping Chelsea and curating an outreach programme with an estimated 250,000 people across the country.

“The main thing, of course, is that we’re actually closing to the public. We shut our doors, which is a little bit scary. It’s not something you do every day of the week.

Museum closures are never easy to manage, especially when major anniversaries such as the centenary of the First World War and the bi-centenary of the Battle of Waterloo (2015) fall in the middle of it, but the collections at the National Army Museum will still play a major part in both.

Their ideas included five new gallery spaces, environmentally controlled stores and a total redesign of the site.

“We feel confident in our proposal, we’ve managed to get all our funding in place and we have had our planning permission," says Murray.

"We thought 'we’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do, so it should be good.'

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have closed in 2014 and we wouldn’t go for two years.

“The problem with our building is that it is so far behind the curve in terms of being a modern day, functioning museum. We have no 21st century public facilities.

“We are a very mid-20th century museum, even though the public love the subject matter and the way we present it. They don’t like the facilities. They deserve better and expect more.

"There’s always a drag on the back of it – ‘we really like your museum but we want a sofa to sit on and a nice atmosphere.’” Those frustrations are about to be put right.

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