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Hear My Story @ The National Museum of the Royal Naval Portsmouth: A review

June 12, 2014


For the full review, see the July copy of the Museums Journal

Hear My Story is the new twentieth century gallery at the Royal Navy Museum Portsmouth. The National Museum for the Senior Service has always struck me as the odd one compared to the other big nationals. It has kept its admission charge, it is does not have a presence in London and perhaps most importantly it is overshadowed by its neighbours the Mary Rose and HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyards.

So it is good news that this hidden National has expanded its recent history displays in the new Babcock Galleries, the refurbished Georgian Grade 1 listed Storehouse Number 10. The museum has made a conscious effort that this new gallery will not be another models and guns show, the officers and crew of the Royal Navy as well as families and experts have been given a chance to tell their stories, ably illustrated with video, still images as well as plenty of objects. Hear My Story has moving tales to tell from the Great War to Marines serving in Afghanistan. The gallery is packed with objects, not only the obligatory heavy metal (Bofors guns and torpedoes) but also lovingly illustrated letters from sailors to their families.

However Hear My Story left me a little disappointed despite such excellent material on display and with the voices of the Royal Navy ringing in my ears. The exhibition is essentially telling the story of a large extended family, the Royal Navy family, to the exclusion of outside voices and an absence of contrary views. I also felt the strong subject matter overwhelmed the visitor due to an absence of a structured flow through the gallery.

Throughout the exhibition it is emphasised again and again, this is the story of the, and by the, Royal Navy, its men, women officers and ratings. Voices from other services or the wider public are rare indeed and other nations are silent. Despite our allies and enemies being repeatedly mentioned there were no American, French or German accounts and definitely no Iraqi or Afghan voices.  This does lead to somewhat uncritical approach to telling the story, yes, the hardships and triumphs are detailed, but you are rarely invited to challenge the largely benign view of the Service.

The designers used plenty of props to aid the telling of peoples’ stories, the exhibition is full of noises providing a busy feel, and large showcases, pull out drawers, colourful graphics and generous use of video screens utilising the museum’s rich collections.   Second World War era black and white footage and grainy video from the Falklands conflict is used as well as a section covering the film and the Navy. Plenty of showcases enabled the museum to display a variety of collections, much of it of a personal nature, letters, photographs, and trophies, with layered interpretation including numbered labels, display paddles, a selection of audio clips and videos stills.   In some cases objects were given space to make a greater impact.

Although there was plenty of technology on display for the public to view, most of the interactives were located at the end of the gallery, along with a family area, with the obligatory dressing up costumes and table top games. The most popular item within the main body of the exhibition was the long touch screen research desk allowing you to explore dates in the last century, which were populated with key historical events, illustrated with photos and images of original documents which could be virtually moved around on your research desk. The novelty of the device attracted visitors who rapidly became engrossed with the historical sources, it also allowed several groups to independently play.

At the end of the gallery there was a chance for visitors to listen to contemporary voices from the Navy. HMS wants to hear your opinion, but very much on their terms. The visitor was asked to agree or disagree with various statements following a briefing by a vox pop of opinions from service personnel, experts and families. Statements included whether the Navy should receive more funding, should we proud of our service and so on. It felt like the visitor was definitely being nudged towards a “correct” answer, and you couldn’t help looking over your shoulder if you did not choose the correct response!

Adjacent was another bank of video screens where you can choose to listen to an interview from serving and retired Royal Navy personnel. They were interviewed by young school children, no older than 12. I found the interview of the Marine Reserve and his tour in Sangin province, Afghanistan, visibly moving, including his description of collecting one his compatriot’s bodies, following an attack. The shock of his tour of duty obviously had a profound impact on the Marine.  This was perhaps the most eloquent reminder of the impact and horror of war in HMS, powerful stuff.


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