The newly opened National Army Museum in Chelsea area of London tells the story of the British army over the past 400 years. It is felt that many people know little about what the army does, let alone the soldier’s real experience now or in the past. The museum seeks to bridge the gap between the army and British society.
“We are the story of the British army, not a museum of war,” says Museum Director Janice Murray. “We tell the story thematically rather than in a chronological narrative.” Both Janice and curator Sophie Stahi, have been here since before the six-year development plan.
National Army Museum exterior. Photo Credit: © National Army Museum.
Opened by the Queen on March 30 2017 after a £23.75 million makeover, the museum is home to around 2,500 objects divided into five galleries arranged by theme over four floors as well as space for temporary exhibitions, a study centre, café, shop and play area. The museum is not just refurbished but is a new incarnation, the New National Army Museum.
Highlights of the collection include the Duke of Wellington’s cloak, the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse and Laurence of Arabia’s robes. Other items of interest are amputated frost bitten toes, a suite of mahogany furniture taken by Lord Raglan to the Crimea and a packet of condoms that author Andy McNabb used for carrying water during the Gulf War!
The Five Permanent Galleries:
The Soldier Gallery reflects individual experiences of soldiering.
The Action Zone shows the chaotic feel of combat using sound, light, images and words.
The Army Gallery traces the origins and development of the British army as an institution.
The Battle Gallery tells the narrative of the army through individual conflicts. It is divided into four chronological sections: horse and musket, rapid fire, total war and modern warfare.
The Society Gallery on the top floor provides some light relief and can be enjoyed as an art gallery, reflecting how the Army has influenced British culture.
National Army Museum: Entrance to Society & The Army gallery. Photo Credit: © National Army Museum.
Finally there is the first of the temporary exhibitions to be displayed. Entitled ‘War Paint: Brushes with Conflict’ it uses objects in the museums own collection and is free (future exhibitions may incur a charge). The exhibition displays over 130 paintings exploring the depiction of war and lasts until 19 November 2017.
First housed at the Military Academy Sandhurst NAM moved to the current site near Royal Hospital Chelsea on Royal Hospital Road in the early 1970s. The building, by William Holford & Partners, was called “a 1971 classic Brutalist building” (The Architect’s Journal).
The rebuild, for which the museum received £11.5 million of lottery funding, was awarded to BDP (Building Design Partnership). It is funded by the Ministry of Defence and hopes to increase annual visitor numbers from 247,000 to 400 000 by 2018. The new museum shows the depth and breadth of the collections better than ever before and explores thoughts and ideas as well as the lives of real people. The aim is to challenge the way people think of the British army and their relationship with it. The ethos ‘to discuss not promote’ and the webpage logo is underlined with the words ‘open for discussion.’
National Army Museum: Atrium looking out to the galleries. Photo Credit: © National Army Museum.
One of the museum’s strengths is its offering for younger visitors. In addition to many interactive and hands on exhibits, such as an opportunity to parade with the guards, crawl under a tank or dress up as a guard and stand in a sentry box, there is an area called Play Base, a soft play centre for children ages 0-8 with sessions lasting one hour at a cost of £4.50 per hour. A parent/carer has to remain with the child(ren).
A free Family Trail leaflet can be obtained from the information desk along maps, What’s On and membership flyers. Free daily tours lasting twenty minutes take place at 11am and 2 pm, starting from the main atrium (no need to book). There are a café, toilets, cloakroom and picnicking facilities. The National Army Museum is fully accessible and has a boardroom for hire overlooking the Royal Hospital.
Coaches can drop off and pick up but not park in bays at the front door. There is no car park. The museum hopes to erect signs from nearby Sloane Square underground station. A guidebook is yet to be printed but an audio tour should be available from the autumn.
Opening hours for the National Army Museum is 10:00am – 5:30pm seven days a week with last entry at 5:00pm. It is also open until 8pm on the first Wednesday of every month.