RAF Museum, Hendon – Monday 15th April 2013

I have a week off on my own at the moment, and so I decided to indulge myself with a trip to the RAF Museum in Hendon, north London. I had been debating between there and the Shuttleworth collection, due to my currently increasing interest in WW1 aeroplanes, and the RAF Museum won on two counts: (a) it was free, compared to Shuttleworth’s £12 fee, and (b) it had an intact Sopwith Camel, while Shuttleworth had one under construction/restoration.

I had been most concerned about the journey, with my plan involving a significant amount of time spent on the M25 on a Monday morning just after rush hour. As it was, the journey went smoothly. It was after that things went gradually downhill.

While I don’t believe in omens, my first encounter with the museum set the tone. I pulled into the carpark, and splitting the entrance and exit lanes was a kiosk containing a security guard and bearing a sign saying “STOP HERE”. So I did. I wound down my window and said hello in a cheery voice. He looked a little blank. The conversation that followed involved him explaining the principles of Pay & Display parking. Clearly, I didn’t need to STOP HERE at all.

The next omen came in the form of the busload of talkative French teenagers who preceded me into the main entrance. I don’t have a problem with teenagers being a bit noisy, I just would rather not be in earshot whilst they are.

The first hall, the Milestones Of Flight exhibition, was fine. The room was well lit, and the teenagers had dispersed and so were pretty quiet. However, the next hall, the Bomber Hall was very dingy and I had been having a minor technical issue with my camera. I’d managed to turn the flash off somehow, and now turning it back on it seemed to be overexposing everything just to spite me. As a result, almost none of the photos I took came out nicely. The exhibits were quite interesting, though there seemed little logic to their placement. The Bomber Hall contained a range of bombers, but there were jet aircraft from the 1970s and 80s next to the video installation explaining Barnes-Wallis’ bouncing bomb, the middle of the room contained some WW2 bombers next to a display about the first Gulf war, and the third section of the room had a couple of German fighter aeroplanes (a Bf109G and a rare two-seat FW190).

The next room, Historic Hangars, was more brightly lit, but something about the lighting caused further problems with my camera (which had given me no concerns until now) with glare appearing as the lighting in the room was low enough to trigger my flash, but then high enough for lighting + flash = glare + overexposure. This was a pity, because this room contained many of the more interesting aircraft, a P-40 in British markings, a P-47 Thunderbolt in Far East campaign markings, and several WW1 planes, of which, the Bristol F2B had an exposed side and wing, which was very interesting (and clearly showed the strong links between the balsa models and real aircraft construction).

The Bristol F2B

After that came a trawl around the shop – even though this wasn’t the end of my visit – and the usual grumbles surfaced. Everything was damn expensive!

After the shop came one of the nicest bits of the day. Upstairs, above the exhibition hall and shop was a small gallery containing paintings by David Bent, an artist who specialises in aircraft paintings. Sadly, I was the only person in the gallery for the whole of the five or ten minutes I spent strolling around the dozen or so paintings on show.

I then crossed the car park to the Battle Of Britain Hall which managed to frustrate me further, as the section containing the more interesting planes was cordoned off. After three laps of the hall, and an underwhelming trip through a Short Sunderland flying boat, I gave up, and feeling like a bite to eat, headed over to the museum’s restaurant, where the shop’s prices suddenly seemed more reasonable (£6 for a sandwich and a small bottle of posh lemonade!).

After my meagre lunch I decided to round off my visit with the final hangar, the Grahame-White Hangar which contained the majority of the museum’s WW1 aircraft. A little separate from the rest of the buildings, I had to consult the map to find it (there being a distinct lack of obvious signage) only to round the corner to find that the whole hangar was closed.

On my way in, I had spotted that a couple of hundred yards up the road was a branch of Hannants model shop. I decided that the best hope of salvaging my day lay in a brief visit to them. However, disappointment followed me even there. The kits were arrayed in a loose order (roughly grouped by manufacturer and then by scale) in a room which needed a little TLC and everything managed to look a little tired. Even worse, Hannants are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination.

Disgruntled to say the least, I headed home.

The unavoidable conclusion here is that the museum has the exhibits and space to do better than it did today. It may well be that I was simply unlucky to chose the day when half the Battle Of Britain Hall, and the whole of the Grahame-White Hangar were closed off, but the whole visit gave me the impression of missed opportunities. I just want them to turn up the lights, reorganise the collection a bit, and make sure everything is open!

I will go again, but only because it’s free, and only to see the Grahame-White Hangar. If I had paid to get in, I would be much more annoyed.

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