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Founding the RAF Museum

Peter Elliot and Ross Mahoney discuss the initial establishment of an RAF Museum.
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ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome to the first section to this week of the course where we’re looking at the relationship between public history and commemoration, especially with relation to the RAF Museum both here at Hendon and of course our sister site up at Cosford. In this section, we’re going to explore some of the history behind the decision to establish an RAF Museum that came about in the 1960s. And with me for this section is Peter Elliot, who’s the Head of Archives here at the museum at Hendon, and has done quite a bit of research on the history of the museum. So Peter, can you tell us a little bit about the pre-history before the decision in 1960 to create the museum?
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And why does it take the RAF 50 years to do it?
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PETER ELLIOT: Well, the RAF was included in the Imperial War Museum when that was founded towards the end of the First World War. But about 1930, the air force seems to have been becoming a bit restless with that idea, and perhaps wanted more of a share of the limelight. And so in 1931 the Air Ministry looked at the possibility of setting up a Royal Air Force museum. They asked the air force to look through its cupboards, more or less, and find what artefacts and documents might be available to put into a museum. But of course in the economic climate of the 1930s, there was no money, no building, and the idea was quietly dropped, I think.
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This, of course, the rearmament in the mid ’30s is a rather more important priority. And it all goes a bit quiet until about the mid 1950s when the idea comes up again. There are working parties formed, and eventually the working parties decide that there is a need for a Royal Air Force Museum. And the museum is setup with a deed of trust in 1965.
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ROSS MAHONEY: So OK, it takes a long time. Eventually we get to the point where the decision is taken to have a museum. Why does it end up here at Hendon? I mean, Hendon is of course associated with Claude Grahame-White, the London Aerodrome, which is arguably, depending on perspective, the birthplace of aerial power in the UK. So why does it end up here?
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PETER ELLIOT: I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it’s close to London, and we’ll receive a large number of visitors, because it’s got good communications, particularly by tube. The M1 hadn’t been built at that stage, but we’re not that far from the M1. And it was a suitably large site where you could display aircraft. The original intention in the early ’60s was to use a building on the Mall, which would have had uniforms, and medals, and small artefacts like that in it. But the aircraft would have been out in Bedfordshire at Henlow where they would be available to researchers by appointment. That building on the Mall was lost to the Institute for Contemporary Arts.
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Before that, they’d been looking at RAF Upavon in Wiltshire, but the buildings on the site there were not in good condition. It was, to be honest, miles from anywhere, and it would’ve been very difficult to get visitors to go there in suitable numbers.
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ROSS MAHONEY: It’s interesting that you mentioned the possible other sites there. One other thing is of course we are the RAF’s museum. How has the service taken to having its own museum? Unlike the army, it doesn’t strictly have what we would refer to as regimental museums. There is a museum for the RAF regiment, of course. But how has the RAF– how have we had that relationship with the RAF over the past 50 years?
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PETER ELLIOT: In general terms, the RAF has been quite supportive. Obviously, it’s the shop window for the Royal Air Force, particularly nowadays when there are far fewer air displays, far fewer RAF stations around the country. It has, in that sense, a recruiting angle to encourage people to join the air force. We get all the people who do join the Royal Air Force. Nowadays they come here for at least part of the day, sometimes for a whole day. And so we are seen as an asset to the museum– to the Royal Air Force.
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ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, because, of course, as we’ve been filming today we’ve seen members of the RAF who have just joined at RAF Halton. So there’s clearly still quite a close relation there. So that’s a little bit of history of why there is an RAF Museum. It plays an important role both in telling the story of the RAF, not just of its aircraft but of its people, and its history, and how it has shaped Britain over the past century or so, and also its relationship with the service.
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As we move on, we’re going to look at how the museum evolved, in particular the creation of the Battle of Britain Museum, and the Bomber Command Museum, and also the site up at Cosford and the National Cold War Exhibition.

The RAF Museum at Hendon

In this video Peter and Ross consider the following statements and questions:

  1. Why was RAF Hendon decommissioned as an active RAF base?
  2. What other options were considered as an alternative to Hendon?
  3. What was the reaction of the RAF to having a permanent museum established?

Please comment as you see fit below.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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