On the 13 May 2010, the Royal Air Force Museum announced proposals for a unique new monument and exhibition centre. It will be built alongside the museum premises in Hendon, where it is intended to act as a ‘gateway to London’. Provisionally called the Battle of Britain Beacon, the imposing structure will tower 116m (380ft) above the former fighter airfield – taller than both Big Ben, and visible from central London.
Rebecca Dalley, head of fundraising at the museum, is responsible for raising the £80 million the Beacon will cost to build, as well as an additional endowment fund for the exhibition and running costs. Though acknowledging she had felt concern at the prospect of finding such a sum in one of the worst financial landscapes of recent years, she says she has been ‘delighted’ by the response to the project. ‘It’s been so positive it has somewhat taken us by surprise. With something of this scale, you expect a certain amount of opposition. The response has just been one of overwhelming support.’
Dalley explained that the Beacon will differ from other monuments not just in scale, but also in its focus and aims: she emphasised its planned status as tribute rather than memorial. The vast internal space will be filled with an educational exhibition devoted to the many and various individuals who contributed to both the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, from fire-fighters to fighter pilots. The museum’s extensive collection of aircraft from both sides of the Battle will be employed to sensitively represent other perspectives. Placing the Battle in a wider context will also be important: there will be a focus on the background to the fight, as Dalley puts it, to ‘tell an important story – “look what happens when democracy goes wrong”.’
The sweeping steel and glass lines of the monument have been designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS), 2010 winners of Europe’s Best Tall Building at the Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat Awards. FCBS were also the designers of multi-award winning RAF Cosford, home to an exhibition dedicated to documenting the Cold War.
The proposed plans are composed of a twisted steel tower with a cut-off, ‘shell’ opening at the top on one side, and the other sliced vertically through to reveal three iconic Battle of Britain aircraft locked in a dogfight. The latest audio/visual effects will bring the fights alive for visitors, as well as providing an interactive educational experience. Re-housing the RAF Museum’s world-beating collection of aircraft, artefacts, memorabilia and archives from the period will also allow the existing Battle of Britain Hall to be used to display more effectively the museum’s other aircraft and archives.
Fundraising progress will dictate when construction on the Beacon begins, but Dalley hopes to see a start in slightly over a year. With the average age of Battle of Britain veterans currently 91, the museum hopes to complete the project promptly to enable as many veterans as possible to see its opening.