Battle of Britain – 1970 Style
Museum Review by Jim Wallman
So, it being a bank holiday it was a good time to finally visit the Kent Battle of Britain Museum at Hawkinge. I’ve been through Hawkinge many times and always wondered what it was like.
Today I found out.
Described as the worlds [sic] largest Battle of Britain collection. I think it is better described as the world’s largest collection of uncurated scrap metal.
Put together through years of hard work and enthusiam of a group of dedicated volunteers (and full credit to them for hard work), it is mercifully free of any educational value or curatorial input. So what you get is the opportunity to view a massive collection of things. A mass of material, not linked together in any way I could determine, and interspersed with dense, poorly written, printed essays pasted in display cases. (… and printed in small type and ALL IN CAPITALS!)
I would have illustrated this review with some photos of what I mean, but the museum has a strict ‘no phones’ and ‘no cameras’ rule – for, they say, ‘Security Reasons’ – I mean those sneaky Nazis (or perhaps Europeans – for we are deep in Brexit Country) might be back and take pictures of the Precious Things of the Museum, right? Or like some lost amazonian tribe they feel the soul of the objects will be stolen with their image. They also claim it is copyright issues – when they don’t even own the copyright for the vast bulk materials they have on display. Anyway, you can see a few images of the museum on the website (which I notice said they were closed today – even though they were manifestly open!).
This museum is a time travel trip into the museums of the 1970s (or even before). Now some of you may recall my unhappiness at the changes to the Imperial War Museum – turning it into a trendy art project and dumbing down alarmingly. I now have an example from far down the other end of the scale. This museum is, literally, a mass of junk metal free from any useful explanation or context. And free from the human dimension of the battle. As if the whole thing was just a technological spectacle of machines fighting machines. Which might be a legitimate perspective of some sort of coherent narrative around that could be established. Instead it was like wandering the shelves of the British Museum artifact stores – just thing after thing on display but no actual information.
Of course, many (all?) museums benefit from the hoarding urges of collectors and archeologists – but in order to offer any sort of educational value they really do need to be curated and step back from just putting everything on display all at once. So many – possibly all- of the display cases contained dozens of objects wtith absolutely no effort at all to explain, inform or contextualise. Its no wonder that the two small boys I saw in one of the buildings were far more interested in playing hide and seek around the cabinets that what was in them.
And it was a Bank Holiday. This is a day when any museum is competing for footfall and this one has an opportunity to use the huge amount of space they have to run events, activities for kids and so on. While I was there someone came in and asked if they had special events on today – and they were met with blank incomprehension – I mean, isn’t a shed full of 700 bits of broken aircraft enough for anyone?
The other massive lost opportunity is that the museum is on a tiny remaining rectangle of the original Hawkinge Airfield, and contains some of the original buildings – but nothing on their history or use (there was one model but, again nothing that properly connected it with the present) or how the surroundings had changed over time.
So I would recommend this museum to anyone who is keen on time travel to the 1970s. The cafe is definitely of that era and my egg on toast and cup of tea was reassuringly nostalgic for my youth. It has some interesting stuff if you already know something about the period and haven’t already seen endless guns, uniforms, medals etc.
However, if you’re new to the Battle of Britain, don’t bother – it isn’t £8 well spent – spend it on a good book instead.