history

Royal Air Force Museum London: some gems in amongst the dilapidation

RAF Museum London - Colindale - main hanger

From the sticker before you even enter the building warning against climbing, past a blizzard of other admonishing signs whose monotony is broken up by the plethora of apologies for things being broken, first impressions of the RAF Museum London in Colindale are not hugely welcoming or promising. And that’s before you get to the many roped off half-repaired areas or collections of buckets located under leaks.

For much of this, it’s certainly possible that sympathy rather than criticism is due as I don’t know the finances of the RAF Museum London and it may be that staff are heroically battling a shortage of funds. Even so, a shortage of money doesn’t explain why the balance of signs is quite so downbeat and negative rather than welcoming and exciting – nor some of the odd details like the profile of a pilot obscured by a new shelf being installed too high in front of it.

That’s a shame because there are some gems hidden away in the museum, such as the brilliant photographs from the Britain from Above project or the yellow line marking out how far the very first Wright Brothers’ powered flight went (a superbly simple idea yet also one that brings the text about them to live).

There’s also a brilliantly broad collection, not just of British aeroplanes, spanning the history of military aviation and with many hours to spend looking at the different exhibits.

Some of the information provided, alas, is of questionable accuracy. For example, the usual story of radar during the Battle of Britain is that the Germans failed to appreciate its importance and so didn’t put in enough effort to bombing the radar sites but here at the Colindale museum visitors are told the Germans bombed the sites intensively before switching their bombing to cities in a piece of text that seems to muddle up radar with airfields.

Likewise other commentary is of the pretty basic ‘we’re all great’ old-style museum approach, such as the film about the Dambusters which barely mentions the huge cost in civilian deaths inflicted by the raids and simply asserts that the raids had a big impact on the German economy – something which historians argue over. This glossing over the richer, and more controversial, fuller picture isn’t because it’s an official museum – others, such as the Imperial War Museums and indeed the RAF Museum Cosford manage this.

This is much more a museum to come and look at planes. Lots and lots of planes. Rather than (as the very best museums also manage) also to learn more nuanced information about how and why they were designed, built and put to use.

Although I didn’t spot any opportunities for guided tours, I suspect that if there are they are therefore extremely good as there are so many items on display have major parts of history wrapped into their own stories, and there are plenty of little quirks for a good guide to entertain a group, such as the recruitment poster for the early RAF which in amongst all the obvious skilled trades asked for chauffeurs to sign up.