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The RAF Museum Cosford and the National Cold War Exhibition

Ross Mahoney and Al McLean discuss the establishment of a museum at RAF Cosford, and the development of a museum dedicated to the Cold War.
ROSS MAHONEY: OK. Welcome back. We’re moving on with the course. We’ve been looking at the evolution of the Royal Air Force Museum, and it’s role in the commemoration of the Royal Air Force, since its establishment in the late ’60s. I’m here with Al McLean, a colleague of mine. He’s a curator up here at the Royal Air Force Museum at Cosford. We’re going to explore the history of the museum site here up at Cosford. So Al, can you just give us an indication– why is there a museum here at Cosford? Where does it come from?
AL MCLEAN: Well in the late ’60s, early ’70s, there were a collection of training aircraft of interesting, significant, and sometimes unique characters had accumulated here at Cosford, while it had been a training base. And the aviation enthusiast community were well aware of this, and wanted to get in and see them. And eventually, the authorities here at RAF Cosford yielded, and said they would allow the public in to view this collection of unusual aeroplanes on one weekend a month. This was so successful, out of that came a decision to actually make that a full-time occupation. Initially, for a retired officer who was allowed to sell tickets for 50 pence.
And if he made enough money to pay himself a salary, he was allowed to do that. But basically, it grew out of that collection of historic training airframes.
ROSS MAHONEY: And of course, I mean, you’ve always been closely linked to the site down in Hendon, it seems. And management, of course, eventually becomes more formally part of the overall Royal Air Force Museum. But what’s the difference between the two collections at the two sites? What’s unique about the aircraft here at Cosford?
AL MCLEAN: Well, I think the unique thing about Cosford is its research and development aircraft. Aircraft that may, for a variety reasons, never have gone into service, but are nevertheless very much part of the history of development of aviation– particularly with view for how the Royal Air Force– the shape the Royal Air Force now has.
ROSS MAHONEY: And a lot of those are Cold-War aircraft, aren’t they– especially as we’ve been around filming things like the TSR-2?
AL MCLEAN: Very much so. You could say that while Hendon covers the whole century of aviation very well, probably Cosford starts around the end of the Second World War and goes on from there. And very much covers the Cold War and later, yes.
ROSS MAHONEY: The other thing about this, though, is of course we’re next to an active RAF base that has an airfield. It also has an air show. What’s that relationship there? And how does that benefit the museum– having that relationship?
AL MCLEAN: Well, the air show is very beneficial to the museum. First of all, we benefit from it financially. And at one point, in fact, it was the air show that was all that kept the museum open. We organised one ourselves, without the RAF help or participation– apart from the loan of the airfield– and it raised enough money to keep the museum open for six months, when there was a great danger it was going to close altogether. Since then, the situation has changed. We’re on a much sounder financial footing.
But the relationship with the Air Force, who’ve taken over the running of the air show, means that we now get quite large slice of money each air show year, without ourselves actually having to do a huge amount for it, apart from lend them some static aircraft and allow 45,000 members of the public to come onto our site each year.
ROSS MAHONEY: So clearly a nice benefit for the museum?
AL MCLEAN: Absolutely wonderful, yes. And it showcases the museum to an audience that it possibly wouldn’t otherwise reach.
ROSS MAHONEY: Thank you. So that’s a little bit of introduction to the site here at Cosford, as Al mentioned, very much core here at Cosford is the history of the Cold War. And in the next section, we’re going to have a discussion about the evolution of the National Cold War Exhibition. So we’ll come back to that in a moment. Previously, we talked a little bit about the history of the site here at Cosford. But now we’re stood again in the National Cold War Exhibition. And we’re going to talk a little bit about why this exhibition is here.
So Al, maybe you could tell us about, what was the decision to create a National Cold War Exhibition here at the RAF Museum at Cosford?
AL MCLEAN: Well, we were told that there was 800-million-pounds worth of European regional development fund money available, that no one had bid for, by our local authority some years ago– about 10 years ago now. And we discussed whether we could bid for some of that in a view to enhancing the exhibitions at the museum in Cosford. And in our discussions, we asked amongst ourselves what links the aircraft that we’d like to get on display, that we’d like to get under cover? And to almost to an aircraft, they related to the latter part of the 20th century. And all been involved in the Cold War. So we said, could we do a theme about the Cold War?
Initially just thinking about aircraft, but then it transpired that, of course, the Cold War is about much more than aircraft. And we were very keen that we shouldn’t try to suggest the RAF won the Cold War, or something silly like that. And that we should really cover a bit more than just the RAF’s involvement. And out of that came the building we are standing in now– the National Cold War Exhibition.
ROSS MAHONEY: That’s actually an interesting point that you said. That it’s not just about the RAF, because actually, there are pieces of armour. There are tanks. There are– there’s even RAF regiment tanks. Something maybe our students wouldn’t understand is that actually, the RAF does, for a time, have some tanks. But what about the way the aircraft are displayed, because it’s quite a different way doing it compared to the other halls here at Cosford, and even down at Hendon.
AL MCLEAN: Well, there are two strands to this really. The building itself is a metaphor for the Cold War. It consists of two wedges which are thrust up through the earth’s crust and are in collision. We’re spending on the fault line between them now. So in many senses, the building sort of informs the display, because of its shape. But ongoing from that was the requirement to get as many aircraft in as possible. And it soon became apparent that we would not convince the lottery to come on board, if we just displayed the aircraft at ground level. We wouldn’t get enough in, even in a building this size.
So the next thing was to look at whether we could suspend some aircraft. And it turned out, when we consulted the architects who hadn’t been given that as part of their brief at the start, they said, yes, you can do it– provided nothing weighs more than 30 tonnes, or nothing that we planned to suspend did. And then it became a case of well, if we’re going to suspend them, we just don’t want to go for the boring straight and level. And if you look around the place, I think you’ll be reasonably convinced quite quickly that we didn’t just go for straight and level. We put them in unusual attitudes. In the attitudes you might have seen them in flight.
The Lightning we’re standing next to is going straight up, and the Lightning could go straight up. And some of combat aircraft are shown upside down. And they will turn upside down, particularly in close-in manoeuvring. So that was really how it came to be like it is.
ROSS MAHONEY: OK, thank you. Some interesting themes there. The design– how the design of the building fits into the interpretation of the Cold War. The idea that Al and myself are currently stood on the fault line of the Cold War. And how the building helps us interpret that collision between East and West is something that is quite intriguing here at the National Cold War Exhibition.

The RAF Museum Cosford and the National Cold War Exhibition

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

  1. How did the transformation of Cosford to a museum site change public access to the RAF’s history?
  2. Was there a deliberate attempt to develop a complementary collection to that at Hendon?
  3. How important is the annual air show in extending the reach of the RAF museums to the Midlands and the North?
  4. When was a decision made to develop a National Cold War Exhibition?
  5. Could you discuss how the display of the RAF aircraft in the National Cold War Exhibition differs from that in Hendon?
  6. Why does the building look like a huge steel tent?

As ever, we would like to know what you think – please post below.

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

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