RAF Museum hits all the right notes with new First World War in the Air gallery

By Richard Moss | 28 November 2014

The RAF Museum has unveiled its new First World War in the Air gallery. Richard Moss takes a look

a triplane at the RAF Museum
© Richard Moss
The Royal Air Force Museum has achieved something remarkable here; telling the human stories of the First World War via a peerless collection of aeroplanes.

It’s a difficult ask to take such iconic and impactful pieces of kit – such as the Sopwith Camel and the Fokker – and balance them with the stories of the men and women who flew or worked on them. But the new First World War in the Air permanent gallery does just that, while retaining the wow factor of some of the most compelling artefacts of their type in the world.

Of course, a good setting helps, and the Grahame-White Factory is a gift. Established in 1911 as a flying school by the young entrepreneur Claude Grahame-White, assisted by French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot, the onset of the war saw the site transformed into an aircraft factory.

The current space is a faithful recreation of existing elements of the listed building, with period brickwork, watch office and pattern room and an impressive triple height hangar with elegant timber and steel ceiling trusses. It's an exhibit in itself - even the toilets have period cisterns and sinks.

But it's the planes that immediately grab the attention, and there are some 13 iconic aeroplanes here, including the Sopwith Camel - the highest scoring fighter of the war - and the German Fokker D.VIII, which saw Herman Goering, later head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, become an ace.

Like the amazing F.E.2b night bomber, which seems to swoop just above your head with its undercarriage laden with bombs, both have been slung from the ceiling - a device that works perfectly to showcase the nature of these primitive flying machines which were the cutting edge technology of their day.

There is also a viewing platform, accessed through the Pattern Office, which allows you a closer view of them. The latter is a feature of the easy flow of the new space, which allows you to follow your nose to whatever interests you.

The simplicity of the new interactives is also a welcome addition. One of them even manages to explain the principle of firing a machine gun through a propeller – an achievement akin to explaining the offside principle to a Martian.

Elsewhere a digital map table succinctly explains the role of air power and its relationship to the ground offensive and a thrilling large-scale wall animation explains dogfight tactics. They are simple yet engaging, and for once you can imagine a school party charging in here and there still being plenty of room for everyone to enjoy them - and the aircraft displays.

"The aircraft are so important to us as part of the collection, and of course they are going to dominate," says Karen Whiting, the museum’s Director of Public Programmes. "They are impressive and beautiful in many ways, but adding that extra dimension is very important."

“But what we didn't want to do was make it feel like ‘here’s a new exhibition, the rest of the site doesn’t fit anymore."

And this, perhaps, is the new gallery's greatest achievement; taking what the RAF Museum already has and improving it through subtle addition rather than through radical transformation.

As to the museum’s massive haul of smaller First World War objects - hitherto in storage - hundreds of them are now beautifully displayed in the three central cases.

Again, it's the right balance between personal stories and technical detail in a narrative that charts the development of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service from reconnaissance and bombing to fighting - the three elements that combined to inform the driving ethos of the Royal Air Force when it was formed in April 1918.

But it's the personal objects, including diaries, mascots, medals, uniforms, weaponry and bullet strafed fragments of rudder art, that bring the story to life. It helps that they are displayed in cases which manage to be so unobtrusive you can glance through them to see aircraft rising above and around you.

So while you’re contemplating the holed map case of Lieutenant Harry Eric Bagot, the ninth victim of German Ace Verner Voss, you can see the kind of machine he was flying during his fateful artillery observation patrol. You will also learn that Bagot survived the war.

Even that much maligned museum staple – the mannequin – makes a successful contribution. Here they are fully formed but greyed out so as to draw attention to the uniforms rather than the facial features.

From the planes and stories to the evocative wall of photos of air force personnel that stares out across the hangar, there is something here that has real potential to engage on a number of levels.

It all adds up to an exciting departure for a museum which has always had the asset of an amazing collection. The new additions of subtle storytelling, intelligent use of interactive elements, sympathetic display of objects and a wonderful sense of place augur very well for the coming years at one of Britain’s best museums.

  • First World War in the Air opens at the Royal Air Force Museum, London on December 4 2014. Open 10am-6pm (closed December 24-26 and January 1). Admission free.

a photo of planes hanging from the rafters of a hangar
© Photo Richard Moss
a photo of a triplane at the RAF Museum
© Richard Moss
a photo of a wall of portraits
© Richard Moss
a photo of the RAF Museum with a screen showing a dogfight
© Richard Moss
a glass case display at the RAF Museum
© Richard Moss
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