In order to mark the centenary of the RAF last year, the Royal Air Force Museum completed a major transformation of its London site. Founded in 1968 and opening its doors to the public four years later in 1972, the RAF Museum London was the principle legacy of the fiftieth anniversary of the Royal Air Force in 1968. Thirty years later in 1998, the former Cosford Aerospace Museum for the MOD which had had separately operated at the RAF Cosford from 1972 formally became part of the RAF Museum portfolio.
As centres of excellence covering over one century of UK military aviation, both Museum sites are, in my view, a must for students of air power history, those who wish to understand better the importance of air power capability, those who may wish to consider the Royal Air Force as a professional career, for serving members of the military and enthusiasts alike to visit.
Important and very necessary developments completed at the RAF Museum London (Hendon) site in 2019 and that were linked to the formal RAF 100 commemoration events held that year have undoubtedly positioned the Museum well for the future.
Never forgetting that one of the primary purposes of the RAF Museum is to share the story of the Royal Air Force, past, present and future, huge emphasis has been placed in recent years on using real stories collected from RAF people and those who played such an important and relevant part in RAF history along with the vast collection of aircraft, equipment and artefacts in order to engage, inspire and encourage, the RAF Museum is determined not to stand still or rest on its laurels.
Following th success of the RAF 100 based development plan there is no intention of standing still. To that end, the recently announced ‘Strategy 2030’ plan has been designed to lay out the foundations of the RAF Museum plan covering its vision for the next ten years. That vision is based around inspiring everyone with an RAF story, the people who shaped the RAF and the important role and place that the Service has played throughout its history, that it continues to actively play in all of our lives today and will do in the future. But there is more to do.
Priding itself as a values-driven organisation, one that inspires through a combination of integrity, sharing, passion, innovation, relevance and excellence, one finds in the RAF Museum a culture underpinned by being open, transparent and ethical, working as a team, caring deeply about sharing our collections and their stories with others, developing what it does with a balance of creativity and imagination, keeping the legacy relevant and of course, in professional terms, always striving for excellence.
Strategy 2030 is based around leading the way with brilliant basics, inspiring people within a dynamic, diverse and collaborative future, inspiring innovative engagement, debate and reflection, connecting with communities and partners together with embedding an entrepreneurial, agile and sustainable approach. Both the RAF Museum London and RAF Museum Cosford will benefit and as part of the next phase transformation a new open resource hub is planned to be located at Cosford, creation of science, technology, engineering and maths discovery play areas for 3-7 year olds allowing even the youngest of visitors to engage and ignite curiosity, creation of more learning spaces together with growing relationships in order to support potential career pathways with organisations such as Pennant/Aviation Skills Partnership.
Also, at the RAF Museum Cosford the intention is that there will be realignment of the visitor centre that allows for a much improve welcome onto the site and that combined with more emphasis being placed on exploration of RAF stories not just through two world wars but also in the inter-war years right through to the current day. The RAF Museum in London will also begin delivery of the final chapters of the London interpretation strategy covering the inter-war period, second world war and subsequent cold-war period. The plan for London also includes relocation of archives and libraries together with a new and more accessible resource centre that will not only benefit visitors but greatly assist in improving conservation of important items.
The Royal Air Force Museum is first and foremost a National Museum, a government non-departmental body (NDPB) and a registered charity and the collection that it safeguards totalling approximately 1.3 million objects is central to everything that the Museum is and what it does.
The RAF Museum is one that is committed not only to using the unique collections that it is charged with conserving and exhibiting but one that is determined to share the story of the RAF and its people to a wider and more diverse audience. Many objects are displayed or temporarily loaned to other Museums across the UK so that a wider audience can see them.
As an educational charity the further development of the RAF Museum through Strategy 2030 is designed to enhance knowledge available to visitors young and old alike allowing them not only to observe the amazing and unique collection of aircraft and artefacts displayed but also to discuss, debate and study the archive along with the very important aspect for younger visitors, having fun.
In parallel with all the above planned developments and enhancements the trustees and management of the RAF Museum are determined to support its permanent staff and 400 volunteers through upgrades to office accommodation and social spaces together with improving the security and maintenance of estates. The plan also envisages creating more commercial opportunities for engagement with the RAF Museum in order to help to sustain and future proof the operation financially for generations to come.
Led by its very able CEO Maggie Appleton and her excellent team together with having an excellent Board of Trustees chaired by former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, the RAF Museum lists founder partner BAE Systems along with other important partner organisations including MBDA, Rolls-Royce, the Ministry of Defence, the Ste of Kuwait and Northrop Grumman amongst what is a very interesting list of partner organisations and supporters.
In the year ended 31st March 2019 which coincided with RAF 100 commemorations and despite significant infrastructure work being undertaken during part of the year at the RAF Museum in London, the two Museum sites welcomed sharp increase in visitor numbers – a total of 989,593 people which was up a staggering 39% on the previous year. This included another big increase in the number of schools and learners attending.
With no visitor entry fees RAF Museum income is funded by a combination of Grant in Aid, grants and donations, trading income, fundraising events, sponsorship, a share of the RAF 100 Appeal and other related income.
Through extensive new, extended and refurbished and repurposed exhibition buildings and landscaping the site, which is located on the historic former RAF Hendon airfield, has a magnificent collection of historic aircraft, vehicles, artefacts, photographs and stories written by those who served throughout its first one hundred years.
Having personally visited the RAF Museum London (Hendon) site on many occasions together with the sister RAF Museum at Cosford and most recently, the huge storage hangars at the former RAF Stafford base where many thousands of artefacts not on display are stored, maintained and where practicable, restored it is important that I emphasise here the dedication of all staff that I have met. This is indeed hugely impressive.
At the refurbished RAF Museum London visitors can now enjoy an ongoing range of specialist exhibitions and also, much more effective use being made of re-purposed historic buildings. Within the main exhibition confines they can observe how the RAF has developed over one hundred plus years, from the first flimsy biplanes that battled over the trenches of Flanders, aircraft that won the Battle of Britain and played such a significant part throughout the rest of WW2 through to jet fighters, deterrent capability, helicopters and weapons that were so important to have during the ‘cold war’ period right up to and including Harrier, Tornado and present day Typhoon and F-35 that are the RAF’s frontline capability today.
The RAF Museum is designed throughout to explore RAF history, past and present and future not just in respect of aircraft and equipment capability but across the breadth of those that served in all trades and ranks and including the Air Training Corps and University Air Squadrons that have played such a significant role in attracting people to join the Royal Air Force. On top is that the Museums are not just about showing past and present RAF but also by offering tantalising glimpses into the future such as the role that the RAF will play in defending UK interest in space.
The bottom line is that the RAF Museum’s primary purpose is to tell the story of the RAF though its people and its world class collections. Here the visitor can also learn about strategy, policy, politics and power that played such an important part in the RAF’s development, the people that led the way and importantly, through stories of the people who shaped and contributed to the RAF’s hundred-year achievement, real stories behind the RAF.
This people-focused strategy was deliberately designed to engage the approximately 70% of Museum’s visitors who are not serving or former serving RAF men and women, industrialists, or for that matter, aviation enthusiasts. It was also designed for ordinary members of the public young and old who chose to visit one of the finest free to enter National Museums one will find in the UK for a great day out. What better way to spark curiosity and help increase the number of engineers, scientists and members of tomorrows RAF could there be?
The site at the former RAF Stafford base along with also with a couple of separate hangars at the RAF Museum Cosford in which specific conservation and restoration work is undertaken and that are not open to the public, are quite frankly absolutely amazing in terms of the number of artefacts held. Plans for further development at Cosford continue.
For RAF 100 events in 2018 it is worth noting that the Museum brought some 500 objects out of the Stafford store for display at the two main museum sites. These, along with all objects display and stored at Stafford reflect the importance of the Royal Air Force in its broadest terms – including of course the many allied nations that have partnered, supported and also, been supported by the RAF since its formation and equipment of our former enemies as well. Engineers, pilots, ground crew, explorers, entrepreneurs, medical staff and many others trades and professions are almost all represented somewhere in the National Collection that is the RAF Museum.
Founded on the 1st April 1918 following the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) the world’s first independent Air Force, the Royal Air Force has, over its now 101-year history, played a very significant and important role in the development of air power and the character of modern warfare. It continues to do that and long may that be so. Just as an interesting example of what the RAF Museum works hard to achieve look no further than the RAF 100 commemorations last year when three new innovative galleries provided an important record of what the RAF has achieved:
RAF Stories: The First Hundred Years – this reflecting on the history of the RAF from its creation in 1918, capturing the many roles undertaken by the RAF across its first 100 years, momentous events of the Second World War, the Cold War and more of recent contemporary operations. It covers the significant advances in technology and aircraft design that underpin the RAF’s capability and explain the range of its operational responsibilities, from defence of the UK homeland and its dependent territories to expeditionary operations in partnership with other nations.
RAF- First to the Future – this particular exhibition invited visitors to explore the work of today’s RAF and of how the service is preparing for the future. The gallery was designed to connect people to the modern and future Royal Air Force and provide a counterpoint to the first 100 years of its history. With a focus on people and skills behind the technology, younger audiences have been able to connect the past and present and hopefully, be inspired to join the next generation RAF. Displays focussed on new inventions and technology, evolving as the world changes and as the RAF responds in its second century.
The RAF in an Age of Uncertainty – this exhibition told the story of the Royal Air Force since the end of the Cold War, including the liberation of the Falkland Islands, Operation DESERT STORM in Iraq and the liberation of Kuwait, and operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya. This period also covers considerable developments in the invention and application of new technologies that were, or still are, in use by the RAF and its global partners.
Teams from the RAF Museum London and RAF Museum Cosford work hard to engage with local authorities and people that live nearby. Examples include a series of ‘Historic Hendon’ projects, working in support of Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths (STEM) and Heritage programme designed to inspire young people and provide where possible hands-on activity. The importance of STEM activities and helping to increase young people engagement with and learning that is vital to career development in fields such as engineering is not lost on the RAF Museum. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that the RAF Museum London’s physical transformation has also been complemented by RAF Stories Online, a new digital sharing project that promotes conversation with a global audience and aimed at helping to connect people everywhere to the RAF story.
(Important Additional Note: The Air League which was itself the founder of the Air Defence Cadet Corps, later renamed the Air Training Corps, will be hosting its landmark Slessor Lecture on 26 February in the Members’ Dining Room in the House of Commons between 16:00 and 18:00.
The speaker this year will be Cdr ED Phillips RN, (Commander Air). With the Queen Elizabeth class carriers planned to deliver an unsurpassed level of military capability to the UK and our NATO allies the development of this sovereign capability by the UK represents a formidable achievement both militarily and industrially. The Royal Navy, supported by UK industry has developed world leading expertise which has seen this once in a lifetime opportunity to ‘write the manual’ for carrier operations. The Slessor lecture follows an intensive period for HMS Queen Elizabeth over recent months which has included Westlant 19 where the carrier and its air wing have been pushed to the limits. HMS Prince of Wales, the second of class, is currently undergoing sea trials. The future deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth heralds the renaissance of UK carrier strike capability and the global influence that this creates. Cdr Phillips has led the trials and integration programme which includes the F-35, rotary wing aircraft, as of course collaboration with the United States Marine Corps.
The Slessor lecture which is given in memory of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor and which is given annually will this year provide key insights into the Royal Navy’s endeavours that are to be considered as pioneering a new era of military capability for the UK. Following the lecture Mike Mansergh, Head of Strategic Engagement – Maritime at Lockheed Martin UK, Tony Rae, Chairman, 2Excel and Nick Childs, Senior Fellow, Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies will join Cdr Phillips for a panel discussion chaired by Robert Courts MP. The panel discussion, will as ever, span a range of issues and perspectives including long term spiral development and the need for balanced capability and an industrial and S&T strategy between industry and the RN/RAF to maximise the capability of the carriers over the next 50 years).
CHW (London – 19th February 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785