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The RAF Museum – Taking The Royal Air Force Story Through All Of Its 100 Years By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

RAFFounded in 1968 as part of the 50th anniversary legacy of the Royal Air Force, the RAF Museum is located on two large sites – one at the former RAF Hendon base in North London and the other, at the still active RAF Cosford base in the County of Shropshire.

The RAF Museum Centenary Programme is intended to transform the London RAF Museum site in order to create a very fitting legacy from the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. With this very important date falling in less than two years, new infrastructure and importantly, new galleries and exhibitions created have been designed to help tell the whole story of the Royal Air Force through all of its one hundred years.

While it is intended that RAF Museum will remain open throughout this period of investment and change, when completed visitors will be actively encouraged to discover how the Royal Air Force has developed and operated in times of peace and war. The hope and intention is that the investment will ensure that future generations can continue to be inspired through the many stories and achievements of those that have been part of the Royal Air Force in the past.

The following account for which I have been greatly assisted by Matthew Winwood, is an attempt to tell the story of the RAF Museum past, present and importantly, to look into what we expect to be a very interesting and rewarding future not just for the museum but also for all those that have an interest in the Royal Air Force and its role in the development of military air power.

The History            

Operating under the original Deed of Trust dated August 1965 and that states that the RAF Museum shall be “for benefit of the Royal Air Force, firstly in order to collect, preserve and exhibit articles and records relating to the history and traditions of the Royal Air Force and of other air forces associated therewith, to collect and publish information relating thereto and finally, to encourage research into the accumulation and dissemination of information and knowledge bearing on RAF history, traditions and natters connected therewith” no one can say that since the museum came to life three years later that the museum has achieved all and more of what it set out to do.

Interestingly, I am told that an ‘Air Force Museum’ had apparently been proposed by the first Lord Rothermere as long ago as 1917, a year before the Royal Air Force was itself actually founded as a stand-alone military entity. However, although the idea was approved in principle by the Air Council in 1931, it was not pursued with any vigour until 1964 when the ‘RAF Museum’ was established by Air Council. The RAF Museum Hendon was formally opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 15 November 1972.

A number of potential sites were considered but the Museum was eventually built on the site of the now closed Hendon airfield site on land leased by the Ministry of Defence [MOD] to the trustees for 99 years under a deed of gift. Funds for the building were raised by a public appeal, with the MOD agreeing to fund running costs. The Trustees are appointed by the Secretary of State for Defence and include a serving member of the Air Force Board as ex officio member. The Trustees purchased the lease for the site, together with further land from the former RAF Hendon site, in 1998.


Since it was founded in 1979 the RAF Museum had also managed the Cosford Aerospace Museum, located on the still current Royal Air Force base located near Wolverhampton on behalf of the MOD. However, in 1998 the Cosford Museum was to formally become part of the main RAF museum and was thus renamed The Royal Air Force Museum Cosford. This was the same year that a significant £3.6 million investment in new galleries had taken place. In 2002 Marshal of the Royal Air Force, the late Sir Michael Beetham opened a new conservation area on the museum site as part of a plan to move the RAF Museum Reserve Collection to Stafford and to move the former activity from where it had taken place until then at Cardington.

Since the RAF Hendon and Cosford museums opened their doors in excess of ten million visitors have been welcomed at both locations. Visitors to both sites can observe a vast array of RAF aircraft and other historic items at both sites, and many sole surviving examples of truly unique historic aircraft. With its location within central London, the Hendon museum can be easily reached by most people living in London and the Home Counties and with a strong marketing strategy, the Museum works hard to reach out to appeal to the huge flow of tourists visiting London.

Though the majority of visitors undoubtedly come to see the exquisite collection of aircraft or importantly, as former airmen and airwomen, to renew their links with the Royal Air Force together with a younger generation who come because of the popular and exciting appeal that historic military aircraft have, the vast majority of visitors have no connection to Royal Air Force at all.


Just as some other museums have and particularly bearing in mind demographics of being outside the centre of London, the RAF Museum has faced something of a struggle in recent years to remain relevant and importantly, to differentiate itself from the ‘offer’ of other traditional London Museums – such as the Imperial War Museum or Science Museum.  A traditional view of running aviation museums could be summarised as ‘the four p’s’.  “Park the plane, put-up a plaque”.  In some exhibits, this had occurred at the RAF museum, with some areas ‘drifting’ in general aviation and broader military items.

Seeking to look toward the longer term, the Board of Trustees decided to conduct a comprehensive strategic review of the current offering of the museum whilst at the same time considering how to keep the Museum relevant and appealing.  The outcome of this was a relatively simple message that said the museum should focus on “telling the RAF story” – in other words, solely focusing on the Royal Air Force, but not just on the specific aircraft. The human story together with the experience of the Royal Air Force through the years, right up to present operations, also needed to be told.

New Visitor Experience

The refocussing would lead to a huge planned £23.5m investment at the Hendon site the beginnings of which are now already underway. Completion of the scheme and formal opening in June 2018 has been planned to coincide with formal centenary celebrations that will mark the foundation of the Royal Air Force. Whilst there will be no expansion to the actual site and no major new buildings apart from extension, renovation and bring some older unused buildings back into use, the site will be completely transformed to provide a totally new visitor experience. Changes will be apparent to regular visitors as they arrive at entrance to the museum and where, currently, the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile launcher, is located. Whilst, the Bloodhound example has been ‘welcoming’ visitors to the museum for many years and is clearly an important part of RAF history, if one was to be brutally honest it would be to say that seeing this as the first thing when you arrive is hardly welcoming at all! Thus the decision has been taken to relocate it and to replace it at the museum entrance with the existing ‘gate guardians’ models of the iconic RAF Spitfire and Hurricane planes. Arriving visitors will then follow through to a new car park area which is part of a wider plan to improve the whole site infrastructure, including pedestrian access and landscaping to make the museum more externally accessible and visibly appealing.

The ‘New Experience’ plan envisages visitors entering through a modern doorway to Hangar 1 and which will be contained the story of “The first 100 years of the RAF”.  This will comprise a display built around an interesting mix of four aircraft – a De Havilland DH9 Bomber from the Great War, a Supermarine Spitfire from World War 2 together with examples of the Folland Gnat and Sikorsky/Westland Sea King helicopter.

Whilst to some the above aircraft may not appear to be the most obvious choice of aircraft to display, given the context of the ‘100 year story’ and the variety of roles (strike, training, rescue), it does in my view go a long way to providing a fair consideration of each phase and specialisation in the RAF. I hear that some have expressed concern that the Battle of Britain collection is being forgotten but this is certainly not the case, the museum is simply evolving and the exhibits are simply being relocated to other hangars.

The most modern of the main halls, the ‘Milestones of Flight’ hall, had been established to commemorate the centenary of powered flight in 2003.  Understandably, 13 years later, the display is beginning to look a little tired and the very informative timeline of aviation stops rather abruptly at 2002. Clearly, there have been many developments in the RAF and in aviation since then and the new exhibition will draw on this very fact. “Air Power in an Age of Uncertainty” will focus on the RAF operations from the Falklands to the present day and this has been designed to better bring home the modern context of air power through the Gulf Wars and to include the latest developments within ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) together with Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS).

One exhibition that is already open to the public under the new gallery plan is the ‘First World War in The Air’ hall. The first £2 million investment under the refurbishment plan, the exhibition sets a strong precedent for the style of the future developments. Firstly, the building itself is a historic hangar and part of the former Grahame-White Aviation Company which once stood on the site.  In fact, the former watch house was in 2010 moved 800 yards, brick-by-brick sin order to become part of the exhibition. Predictably, there is also a wide variety of flying machines from the Great War but visitors should ready themselves for far more than just this. Many interactive displays and ‘hands-on’ exhibits have been designed to get visitors thinking about many aspect of flying activities during the Great War including early fighter tactics and machine gun interrupter gear (for firing through a propeller arc) and so on. This I am reliably told is exactly the sort of display that appeals to the ‘millennial’ visitor and provides a worthy interactive diversion to just looking such things up on an iPad.

Importantly, there is a real drive in the plan towards RAF people that make up both the history and present day Royal Air Force. This will be made very clear in the World War 1 (Great War) display comprising a substantial display of portraits and personal articles and this will become a similar theme throughout the museum. The forthcoming “RAF Stories” programme will also allow visitors to hear these, and visitors are encouraged to upload their own memories of the RAF or family connections to share.

Other more unsightly objects will also be removed altogether and I understand that the Rescue and Target Towing Launch (RTTL 2757) together with Pinnace Mk.1 1374 are to be turned to face the opposite direction and at some point restored.

Community Relations & STEM

Local community views have deliberately played a large role in the development of the museum.  The area around the RAF Hendon museum site in Colindale has enjoyed a vast amount of new housing growth over recent years with construction seemingly evident in every direction one looks. Recognising the potential from this, the museum has appointed an ‘outreach officer’ whose job it will be to liaise with the local community. This is no small task in a busy urban area of London and in doing so it should be noted that over one thousand local residents have been involved in and part of a public consultation process.

For any major tourist attraction, keeping the local population ‘on side’ is always a very sensible idea but the consultation referred to above also raised a couple some interesting additional issues.  Firstly, and more obviously, as the area has been overtaken by development the lack of ‘green spaces’ in the area has become very noticeable. In response the museum plan will actually create a lot more grass area through plans for landscaping and removing of unwanted car parks and concrete on which, back in the 1930’s hangars had been located.

What may be more even more surprising is that many residents in the Collingdale area have little idea that the Museum site was once an aerodrome. Compare this to the half-million people that would have turned out to the ‘Empire Air Days’ held on the Hendon site between the two wars and immediately after the second or indeed, the very impressive range of aviation achievements at Hendon, including the first ever night flight, the first parachute drop and first airmail service.

Like so many forme airfields around the UK, the only clues to the past often lie in the road names on the local housing estates. However, such is the amazing thinking that has gone into plan to take the Royal Air Force story through into the twenty-first century the museum has other ideas to reinforce that it was once an operational airfield.  To reinstate important links such as these, full use will be made of the existing wartime buildings on the site, including turning the old supply building into a new restaurant. Indeed, having seen them, suffice to say that some of these buildings are so authentic that they still have their original wartime camouflage paint in places!

But for those less well versed in British military architecture, more obvious reminders of the airfield will be also included, such as ‘runway’ style paths between buildings and a children’s play area laid out as per the original aerodrome plan.

Involving youth in the museum, of course, goes far beyond the play area though. Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are a key requirement within the national education drive and they are a subject that the museum takes very seriously. Currently, the museum hosts around 60,000 school children visiting throughout the year and the various exhibitions have been designed in some cases to have deliberate ‘laboratory feel’. In addition, there are frequent points where some of the key concepts of aviation and air power can be debated together with the aid of electronic information and displays if required.

Crucially though, the RAF Museum is not designed as a RAF recruiting tool. However, should young visitors feel the need to explore the possibilities of investigating careers in the Royal Air Force on the spot, there is a small RAF careers board on the way out of the museum shop!

More importantly and to provide visitors with an ‘atmosphere’ of life in the RAF and the kind of operations required to exercise air power, young visitors will be easily able to get an impression of whether or not they might like to think about careers in the military or in the aviation industry as a whole. Certainly the plan for the museum will in my view quite definitely help to shape the future national public mindset as to the needs of air power related defence and aviation development, something that many of us have been saying for a long time is lacking today.

In conclusion, suffice to say that these is are all very exciting developments and wit both signatories to this piece having visited the museum to look at the plans in detail over the past few weeks I for one am in no doubt that what this well thought out planned investment will provide will greatly enhance and improve what is in any event an already excellent visitor attraction. The RAF Museum is thinking about the future just as it is looking after the past.

Nothing comes cheap I this day and age of course and there is a substantial funding requirement involved in the planned £23.5 million development and £7.5 million remains to be found before the museum reaches its target. The RAF Museum has varied sources of finance including some MoD funding, central government funding (as a free-entry museum), grants (including a recent substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant) as well as general donations from public and corporate benefactors as a registered charity. It also has the huge Short Sunderland flying boat ML824 which is being retained in Hangar No 1 not only because its size and age make it a touch difficult to move but also because it makes for a very impressive venue for dinner and other events under the wings!

Other than financial threats, suffice to say that the RAF Museum seems relatively well-placed. Competition does remain a ‘risk’ to an extent but in my considered opinion this would appear less likely to be reduced in terms of being a serious issue now that the decision to re-focus on the ‘RAF Story’ has been made. Even museums need refreshing from time to time. That is not to be complacent but it is to be mindful that the Imperial War Museum in London only deals with conflict and also that the RAF Museum is far closer to London and far more accessible to large numbers of visitors than the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.

That said, the RAF Museum embraces links with fellow museums, often sharing technical knowledge on historic aircraft. The museum has an impressive international network of relationships with aeronautical and military aviation museums all over the world and it has, for example, in the past made loans of airframes to the Smithsonian in the USA.

However, the pressure of time for the RAF centenary in June 2018 is and will increasingly be a serious demand on what is a very small team of highly skilled people led by CEO, Maggie Appleton. To do all that is planned, to get it all done by June 2018 and to do so while the museum is kept open is a very tall order but I for one know that not only is this a very able team but also, that they will achieve it. Indeed, days after substantial Heritage Lottery Award was announced, work has already commenced on initial projects and in moving out exhibits that will go elsewhere or into temporary storage. Whatever, the hard working team at the RAF Museum can expect to be working very hard over the next couple of years and so too will the many contractors that will be assisting with the redevelopment.

In conclusion, without doubt this is both a fantastic decision and investment on the part of the Trustees and a real ‘crossroads’ opportunity for the RAF Museum. Refocussing on telling the Royal Air Force story through all of its 100 years should ensure a solid future for the museum for and for generations to come. Museums can and should be seen as national assets but it is important that they remain appealing and relevant to both specialists and general public alike. The Trustees and senior management of the RAF Museum recognised the challenge and they are now putting the plan into action. We wish them well and very much look forward to seeing the end result.

Howard Wheeldon and Matthew Winwood (London – 27th November 2016)




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