Second World War Hall Redevelopment

What's next?

30th June 2017

Curator David Willey looks at the next big Exhibitions task, and discusses the plans and challenges of redeveloping the much-loved Second World War Hall.

WW2 Hall2Those who have visited The Tank Museum over the last decade will have seen a great number of changes, and hopefully most will have seen these changes as improvements. The Heritage Lottery Funded Tank Story Hall was opened in 2009 to give an overall history of the tank and its development with 37 vehicles. This has been followed by a gradual re-display to the rest of the Museum – the Discovery Centre where more thematic displays have been introduced. 

In 2011 the Battlegroup Afghanistan exhibition was opened followed by the addition of new cases showing themes from the Collection in the Second World War Hall in 2012. The Vehicle Conservation Centre was opened in 2013 with a display on our conservation and restoration activities and the Warhorse to Horsepower and the Fury exhibitions opened in 2014, followed by Tank Factory in 2015. The First World War Tank Men exhibition opened in 2016 and this year we opened the Tiger Collection exhibition in part of the Second World War Hall.

The re-displays have been done for a number of reasons. As a charity, income generation is vital to sustain the Museum, so regular new exhibitions to encourage visitors to revisit has led to an annual opening of a new display. The displays are also aimed at increasing the range and quality of the interpretation. Ensuring the interpretation and stories told meet the needs and expectations of the visitors cannot be overemphasised. The Tank Museum, whilst a national collection, a leader in its field and a training tool for the modern Army, is also a popular tourist attraction. WW2 Hall3So whilst an important resource to the serious scholar and enthusiast, it is, in the main, funded by the family group who visit - a non-specialist audience.

The exhibitions installed so far have been heavily evaluated and surveyed. The good news for the Museum is that the approach taken seems to have gone down well with various sectors of the audience, with support being shown by the die-hard tank nut to the family who visit because they have heard it’s a good day out.

Our next challenge is the redevelopment of the Second World War Hall and this may lead us into new territory. The hall is the oldest part of the Museum, originally built to house the School of Tank Technology Collection. It is for many the traditional ‘heart’ of the Museum and some returning visitors still stop, smell the air and remember with some emotion a visit from years ago. Re-displaying this hall is therefore a delicate matter. How do we re-display such a collection without disappointing some element of the audience? Thinning the density of the tanks to allow better photography (as was part of the aim in the new Tiger display) is simply not possible throughout the hall as there are too many classic tanks and our Vehicle Conservation Centre cannot take that many more vehicles. Knowing our visiting audience likes to see the human story means we will inevitably want to incorporate more personal stories and items from the supporting collection such as uniforms, memorabilia, and documents from the Archive.

WW2 Hall1Our Second World War collection of vehicles is international, but with an obvious bias to the Western Allies, whilst our Supporting Collection has a strong British bias, simply due to the nature of the items we have been donated. How much should we try and encompass an international story? The actual number of international visitors is still relatively small, less than 7%, apart from events such as Tankfest where it reaches 16%. In comparison over half the visitors to the British Museum in London are from outside the UK.

The Second World War Hall is 3,400 square metres and we cannot develop it in one go, so the work will be phased over a number of years. As with previous projects, the Museum needs to remain open so visitor flow issues will have to be incorporated into the project and a number of entrances and exits to the Hall will need to remain. By its historic nature we have old and at times failing services that need assistance - visit on a rainy day and you can see the buckets from the leaking roof.

All these factors are being thrown into the mix as the Museum decides on the best way to develop the Hall and what story or theme should and could best be told for our visiting audience. 

If you have a view on what we should be doing, please do help us by sending your views to info@tankmuseum.org.