A couple of weekends ago a friend and I visited the National Army Museum (NAM), in Chelsea. The NAM is one of my favourite London museums… far more so than its famous neighbours the V&A, Science or Natural History Museums.
The NAM has a couple of things going for it – firstly, it’s quite unknown, so it’s always quiet (no screaming children!). Secondly, it’s very earnest, very down to earth, and doesn’t have the impersonal, elitist, corporate feel of the nearby large museums. Thirdly, it’s full of incredibly cool stuff!
By cool stuff, I mean original uniforms and costumes, guns, swords and armour. It also has a lot of really quirky pieces like the skeleton of Napoleon’s favourite horse, and a miniature 50 square ft reproduction of the battle of Waterloo, as well as some iconic things like a French Eagle captured at Waterloo, the order that sent the Light Brigade on their fateful charge, and Florence Nightingale’s lantern.
The NAM is set up chronologically, so that if you follow the signs (of course you don’t have to) you move through the history of the British Army and it’s engagements from the Civil War through to the present day, which contextualises it all nicely. As well as the fantastic displays and a light smattering of non-invasive interactives, the walls of the galleries are all covered in massive amounts of information.
The objects themselves are displayed quite traditionally, but there is really such a wealth of personal affects, military equipment, clothes and minutae that it is always very engaging. There’s also a good smattering of massive things like 20 pounder cannons and jeeps, and in general the displays do a good job of communicating what it was like to be a soldier during each period. The only signficant criticism I have is that all of the displays are inside glass-fronted cabinets, and unfortunately the glass hasn’t been made non-reflective, so you often get quite a bit of glare obscuring the objects.
The museum curators are clearly making a good effort to keep up to date, and there’s currently a gallery focussing on the British Army in Helman. This is a really fantastic gallery as almost all the objects are available for handling, so you can get inside the tents and tough the letters and personal affects, and you can pick up the guns the soliders are using (which are unbelievably heavy). It brings the whole conflict a lot closer and makes it a lot easier to understand, and there’s an interesting juxtaposition with some historical (late 19th century/mid 20th century) quotes on Afghanistan. I think it’s great that kids of service people can come and get a bit more of an idea of what the place is like.
We visited every gallery (but didn’t read absolutely everything) and it took about four hours. So far everyone (male and female friends and my mum!) has enjoyed it, so you don’t have to be a history geek to like it. The NAM is just ten minutes walk from Sloane Square, one stop down from South Kensington (home of the V&A etc), so it’s quite convenient if you’re in the area. The shop is pretty poor, but I imagine if you’re into military history it probably serves quite a good range of books. But if you’re interested in a museum in London, and fancy actually learning something about British history for a change, do take a look, it really is a fantastic place.