The conversation

Rachel Silverson, Christine Bernath, Issue 117/12, p17, 01.12.2017
What are the key challenges facing military museums?
Dear Christine: Military museums are on the precipice of radical change. This was clear to everyone at the Army Museums Ogilby Trust conference in October, which raised questions about how army museums can become more effective and robust organisations. With half of the museums in attendance having lost, or facing losing, Ministry of Defence (MoD) funding, I believe that bringing military museums together in collaboration is key to our sector’s evolution. At Firing Line, we embraced this idea in 2009, combining the Welsh Cavalry and Infantry under one museum. Best wishes, Rachel

Dear Rachel: I strongly support your idea of better collaboration between army museums as we go through this period of change, but we also need to look at how we can succeed as individual museums beyond the military sector. The loss of our MoD funding is more than a financial difficulty. It signifies a loss of support from an army that no longer identifies with the historic regiments we represent. This threat of becoming irrelevant to one of our key audiences is an issue that we have to address to ensure our survival. Best wishes, Christine

Dear Christine: Organisational resilience is essential but it’s connected to governance at military museums. At our core, we are organisations set up to reflect military interests, although the way we are governed also needs to reflect the skills, knowledge and expertise lacking in our museums to improve the services that we offer. These skills may not necessarily come from the military world. While we want to continue to represent our current audiences, if we are to safeguard our institutions for future generations, we must appeal to more diverse audiences. Best wishes, Rachel

Dear Rachel: Absolutely, and it is how we choose to tell the regimental story that is key to securing these new audiences. While the loss of funding is a significant blow to many of our museums, it has offset a real risk of complacency; in our case, it has prompted a previously risk-averse organisation to look critically at what we can offer to visitors beyond the regimental family. The catalyst for change sparked by the withdrawal of MoD funds is perhaps best illustrated by the recent boost in military museum networks across the country, which reflects your earlier point about the importance of collaboration. Best wishes, Christine

Dear Christine
: For many army museums, separation from the MoD is a scary prospect. While the financial circumstances of this are challenging, I believe that this can benefit the sector. Independence can lead to creativity in identifying the advantages of being more commercially minded in how these regimental stories are interpreted which, in turn, will create alternative streams of income generation. The emerging regional networks are key to this as a way of harnessing expertise and benefiting from joint funding ventures and the sharing of resources. These networks empower army museums through their advocacy work and shared voice. Best wishes, Rachel

Dear Rachel
: It is daunting to lose a regular income stream, but you’re right about the creativity that independence can bring. Regimental museums have generally changed very little over the years, so perhaps now is the time to reimagine our core purpose and take steps towards better bridging the gap between the public and military. The recent redevelopment of the National Army Museum in London and the ongoing reorganisation of the army indicates a need for change within our museums. Ultimately, the MoD grant was never a sustainable income, and I hope the gradual withdrawal will result in more creative and resilient organisations. Best wishes, Christine

Rachel Silverson is the museum curator at Firing Line: Museum of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Royal Welsh at Cardiff Castle

Christine Bernáth is the curator at the Shropshire Regimental Museum at Shrewsbury Castle