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Milestones of Flight and the First World War in the Air Exhibition

Ian Thirsk & Angela Vinci talk to Ross Mahoney about recent additions to the RAF Hendon site: Milestones of Flight and the Grahame-White restoration
INTERVIEWER: OK, welcome back to the course. So in this section of the course we’re continuing to look at the evolution of the museum here at Hendon. And, in particular, we’re stood in the museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery. And with me is Ian Thirsk, head of collections. So, Ian, tell us about why did Milestones of Flight– what’s the thinking behind the creation of this exhibition.
IAN THIRSK: Well, Milestones of Flight was basically produced to commemorate the centenary of power flight in 2003. The idea was to showcase significant landmark developments in military aviation history, basically, from the 1909 Bleriot, up to the current Euro fighter. So we include examples of things, like a replica of the first British military aeroplane, the control car from the Nulli Secundus. We have the Hawker Hart, prewar bomber. The de Havilland Mosquito, the world’s first multi-role combat aeroplane. We have the first operational jet fighter in the world, the Gloster Meteor, also the first [INAUDIBLE] aeroplane. And, of course, the groundbreaking, revolutionary Harrier jump jet.
INTERVIEWER: It’s a wonderful collection of aircraft. And one of the interesting differences in the hall is actually that some of the aircraft are hung up, which is not something that you see in some of the other halls but something we have seen in the new First World War exhibition. And what’s some of the thinking behind that decision? Because it can go either way with–
IAN THIRSK: What it can do. It was the first time we’d ever done anything like that. It’s a completely new concept for us, suspending aeroplanes. But it’s a great thing to do because you can appreciative them in the third dimension. Gives you a chance to interpret them in new and more interesting ways, to be quite frank. And, of course, along with that we had the digital technology to interpret them with the interactive kiosks, another new thing for the Air Force Museum at Hendon.
INTERVIEWER: And how is the whole change? Because, clearly, there are aircraft in here that weren’t here when it first opened. What’s been added, what’s been taken away–
IAN THIRSK: Yeah, well, since it opened in 2003 there’s been quite a few changes. We removed the [INAUDIBLE] to go into the First World War in the Air exhibition about two years ago. We took out the– we moved the Gloster Meteor in to replace the Kawasaki Ki-100, and the F-35 replica came in about three years ago. That replaced the Gypsy Moth, and the Miles Mohawk, which, of course, belonged to Charles Lindbergh. So it’s been an evolving sort of development display area, to be honest.
INTERVIEWER: OK, thank you, Ian. Some interesting thoughts there. And we’re going to go across and have a look at the First World War exhibition. But Milestones of Flight is important in that it tells milestones of flight, but also it’s an important milestone in the museum’s development, and how we start to interpret the exhibits here at the museum. Joining me here now is Angela Vinci, our head of exhibitions and interpretation. And we’re stood in our wonderful First World War exhibition that opened here last year. Angela, the buildings that we are in are originals. They were part of the site during the First World War.
Tell me how important is that as part of the exhibition, as part of the history of the site?
ANGELA VINCI: Well, it is very important, this building to us. And we have treated it in the exhibition as our very first exhibit to take care of and display. So the Grahame-White factory was set up here before the outbreak of the First World War. So Claude Grahame-White was this visionary entrepreneur with a passion for aviation. He had set up here with Louis Bleriot a flight school, before the First World War. So a lot of the pilots that then joined the first world war had actually learned how to fly here. And this place– the site, actually, was set up as a place for air shows.
So a lot of people from London, and from everywhere, would come here for a fun day out to see the marvel of this new technology that was aircraft. And then, during the First World War, this place was transformed in a very big factory for producing aircraft. So this building is the last hanger that we have that tells us that story. It was an important industry here in Hendon. This very factory, by the end of First World War, was producing something like 20 aircraft each year, so that is quite an impressive number.
So it is important that we have arranged our First World War in the Air exhibition in the space because then the box and the content, they were as a whole for telling the story– not only on the First World War, but also of the site, and what was happening here in the years before and during First World War.
INTERVIEWER: These buildings remained here while this was an area of base. So there’s an interesting connectivity between our history. I mean, the exhibition itself is very different to what else is on site. I mean, if you walk around, this is something different. Tell us something about the importance of that as part of the evolution of the museum, and how we’re moving forward.
ANGELA VINCI: Yeah, well, we’re very proud of this exhibition. We’ve recently won the National Lottery Award. The exhibition was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. That’s done a huge difference of good for us. And this is only the first step of a transformation that will involve the whole museum. So this was the first phase. Of course we developed this area, this gallery first, to commemorate the centenary of the first world war last year. It’s been innovative the way that we have developed it, because, for the first time, we have worked on content and interpretation ourselves.
So we have hired external designer, but what was the story that we wanted to tell has been developed by an internal team of curators, a team from access and learning, but also other teams were involved in the decision making process for this space. For the very first time, we reached out to our visitors, and we’ve asked them, what is it they would’ve liked to see, or do, or learn in the exhibition. That has informed the design, as well as a programme of activity that actually lasts us for four years. So the exhibition is only the tip of the iceberg of what we’ve done to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
So talking with our visitors, for instance, we’ve learned that they would like to experience what it felt, how it was like to be a pilot during the First World War. So we have included some interactives like the Rock in the Cell, in which our visitors can train, maybe with the same level of detail– probably– that the pilots in the First World War were training. But also we’ve put an accent on explaining a more difficult concept in an easier way. And we were looking at different techniques, and it could be, yeah, an interactive, or it could be a video like the one that we see in back. But also, for the first time in the museum we have integrated our collection.
So when our visitors come here, they don’t only see the aircraft, they don’t only learn about facts and figures about the aircraft, but they see the whole breadth of our collection. They see archival material that’s never been shown to the public. They see uniforms, they see medals, and maintain they see objects that talk about stories of people. And I think that this has been the defining difference in the way that we did things before, and the way that we are moving forward on our interpretation. We’re focusing more on people’s stories, and finding the stories that can relate in a more direct way to our public.
INTERVIEWER: Some really interesting thoughts there about how our new First World War exhibition here at the museum is looking to take the museum forward, and how we interpret the stories of the Royal Air Force. The Royal Air Force is not just all about aircraft, even though they are clearly an important part of that story. We’re not only here to tell the story of the pilots and the air crew, but also the ground crew, those that helped service the aircraft and ensure the RAF was able to take the fight to the enemy. And also telling those people’s stories in new and innovative ways.
In the next section of The Course, we will be talking a little bit more about how the museum continues to evolve, and some of our planning for the future as the RAF moves toward– as the museum moves towards commemorating the centenary of the RAF’s formation in 1980.

Milestones of Flight and the Grahame-White Factory

In this step Ross asks Ian and Angela consider the following statements and comments:

  1. The Milestones of Flight Exhibition added an additional aspect to the aviation collection at Hendon.
  2. In contrast, the Grahame-White restoration reflected on the historic roots of the site as an RAF base.
  3. What impact – on the museum and the public – did the recent ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition have?

Have you been to these hangars? If so, tell us what you think below.

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