Seema Syeda reviews the newly remodelled RAF Museum.
Museums, I thought in a rather prosaic way as I sat underneath the bomb bay of an Avro Vulcan B2 in the RAF Museum’s Hangar 5, usually chronicle the events of the past. Meandering through the corridors of the British Museum, for instance, gazing at the ossified warriors of yore and statues carved from rock, one is met with a sense of alienation.
These objects signify – as implied by the very fact of their preservation, conservation, and display in the rarefied setting of the museum’s cabinets – a fossilised history that has emphatically ceased to be, representing vanquished cultures and civilisations distant and remote, both spatially and temporally, from the modern viewer’s location. The past, reaching again for the cliché, is a foreign country.
This is not so in Hendon’s newly remodelled RAF Museum. Nothing here is truly dead. The bizarre experience of casually sitting under the immense wingspan of a Vulcan bomber is a case in point. The curators, no doubt with a laudable sense of irony, have converted the area beneath the bomb bay into a makeshift sitting room.
There are four unremarkable chairs, rather like the ones you might find in the waiting area of a doctor’s surgery, placed in a line directly where, only a few decades before, a nuclear missile might have been dropped.
Inside the bomb bay and opposite the chairs, a television screen has been positioned, where viewers can watch, in an endless loop, video recordings of the Vulcan bomber taking off.
A few years ago, the Cold War and the nuclear threat seemed remote. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the end of history was proclaimed, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Iran’s ambitions to attain a nuclear warhead were curbed with the 2015 nuclear deal, and North Korea, a ridiculed pariah state, was the only nation left threatening to use nuclear missiles. New threats, from cyberspace and terrorism, arose, but the Nuclear Age appeared to have subsided.
The casual set-up under the bomb bay of the RAF Museum’s Vulcan reflects this detente. The Vulcan bomber, and the type of warfare it signified, this arrangement seems to say, had been relegated to the past.
But recent events have switched the narrative: with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s psychodrama over who has the ‘biggest’ button playing out across the world stage, nuclear war must once again be counted as a modern threat.
The history of the Royal Air Force, founded a hundred years ago, can be seen as emblematic of these iterative conditions of modernity.
A CENTURY OF THE RAF
Chronicling the development of the RAF, and the ongoing updating and releasing of new models of fighter jet, helicopter, and weaponry in a cycle of technological innovation, arms races, and decommissioning – the RAF Museum’s new hangars and exhibitions encapsulate the story of the modern.
Two hangars have been completely remodelled to house three new exhibitions, RAF Stories: the first 100 years, RAF: first to the future, and The RAF in an ‘Age of Uncertainty’. The old hangars (Hangars 3, 4, and 5) still contain classic aeroplanes, such as the Battle of Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1A and the Avro Lancaster bomber, alongside many more aircraft, crammed together in showroom style.
But the shiny new Hangar 1 takes a different approach to telling the RAF’s story – focusing on narrative, information, and ideas, as well as the raw matériel of war. As visitors walk in, they are confronted by a decommissioned nuclear warhead to their right, next to an incredibly high-tech surveillance drone, and a de Havilland DH9A above.
The warhead, Blue Steel, is an air-launched nuclear missile with a destructive force 70 times more powerful than the device dropped on Hiroshima. It was used as a deterrent during the 1960s, and would have been launched from a Vulcan or Victor aircraft, using its Stentor rocket to accelerate to 1.5 times faster than the speed of sound. It was decommissioned in 1970.
The drone was acquired by the RAF in 2007 to provide all-weather intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. Within six months, it was also being used to strike targets. Those in the know balk at it being described as a ‘drone’, given its complex programming, and prefer the acronym RPAS, standing for the technical label Remotely Piloted Airborne System.
Futuristic, sleek, and streamlined, this RPAS has transparent panels that allow visitors to look into its complex wiring, and contrasts heavily with the DH9A ‘Ninak’ biplane hanging above it. In combination, the display shows just how dramatically technology has developed since the formation of the RAF, as well as engaging head-on with the contemporary ethical issues of drone usage.
The exhibition also explores past ethical issues, focusing particularly on the lack of a memorial and medals – until recently – for Bomber Command. The controversial reception of the RAF’s WWII bombing campaigns (especially the destruction of Dresden) are addressed.
The discussion covers how, on one hand, strategic bombing – on both sides of the war – resulted in gratuitous civilian death and destruction; on the other, Hitler and his allies may not have been defeated without it. Visitors are given the opportunity to provide their own responses to the issue.
INTO THE FUTURE
The overall aim of the exhibition is to showcase the contemporary relevance of the RAF, connecting the dots between the past, present, and future. Interactive features abound, engaging all the senses – visitors can not just listen to audio recordings, but also touch the fabric of an RAF uniform and even smell the polish used.
The space is split conceptually, rather than chronologically, into the different functions and roles of the RAF: attack, defence, intelligence, personnel, and rescue. Marine flying boats, machine-guns, uniforms, engines, and a huge RAF rescue helicopter can be seen.
There is a brilliant flight simulator, allowing visitors to enter the cockpit and pilot a plane on a virtual mission. The controls are extremely sensitive and convey some of the complexities of flying a real aircraft – nothing like the computer games you can buy.
From here, visitors are guided into RAF: first to the future, a sci-fi kind of space, reminiscent of the popular movie The Hunger Games. It offers an unsettling glimpse into the powerful possibilities of military technology, once beyond imagination.
Visitors can build computerised model planes and test them out against each other, or take part in a virtual debate, using a huge round table that has been fitted with touchscreen capabilities and would not seem out of place in The Matrix.
Hangar 6 houses the final new exhibition, The RAF in an ‘Age of Uncertainty’. The star of the show here is certainly the Eurofighter Typhoon DA2. Typhoons were originally fighter aircraft , but were soon converted to bombers. They first saw operational service for the RAF over Libya in 2011 – where they were used to gain control of the airspace and support anti-Gaddafi troops on the ground.
Hanging from the roof of the building, the entire plane – usually a stealthy grey – has been painted black. Curators told MHM that this was because, during testing, BAE engineers ran some trials on the aircraft to see how it functioned with new weapons systems.
The engineers needed to place a large number of sensors over the airframe, but it would have taken two years to run the wiring through it, so they decided to attach the wiring to the outside of the aircraft using gaffer tape instead. After the trials, given the difficulty of removing this strong adhesive, it was decided that the whole frame should be painted black to cover the unsightly tape.
Also displayed in this space is a Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer S2B, featuring some rather raunchy nose art, and a Chinook helicopter split down the middle so visitors can enter the body of the craft.
Alongside the new exhibitions, launched to coincide with the RAF’s centenary, the First World War in the Air exhibition (see MHM February 2016 for a comprehensive review) is a delight to explore – its fancifully painted wooden airframes contrast wonderfully with the metallic monstrosities of later eras.
With these flashily up-to-date new exhibitions alongside its more traditional hangars, the RAF Museum gives a comprehensive look at the history of the Royal Air Force from its foundation to its future. A fascinating day out for all the family.
This article is an extract from the September 2018 issue of Military History Monthly.
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