Interpreting our military history. The challenges of joining social and industrial historical stories.

I spent part of this afternoon on an aircraft carrier. Not a real one, i should point out, but rather the award winning gallery of the Fleet Air Arm Museum ( Clearly the holiday destination of every schoolboy in the south of England, it’s one of the largest military aviation museums in the world, covering everything from the earliest days of using kites to hoist men aloft to gain a better view of the battlefield, through to the latest applications of military technology in Afghanistan.

It’s fair to say that, as well as chronicling the development of air power, the successive galleries also chronicle the different approaches to the interpretation of technology, the good, the bad and the downright terrible.

When it comes to history, there are two broad angles that we can take to interpretation: social history and the history of artefacts (there are, clearly, many distinctions, but primarily i’m interested in the difference between the object and the associated social history). The story of the artefact is one of dates, materials, manufacture and technology, whilst social history is about the way those artefacts related to the activities of man. A spitfire is an object, but the Battle of Britain is an event. Telling the story of a spitfire through the Battle of Britain, with it’s named pilot is a social history, as opposed to just telling me who designed it.

Begging the forgiveness of any aviation nuts, aircraft all tend to look pretty similar. There is an expected progression from early ones that went slowly, had several sets of wings and looked as thought they’d been made in my garden shed or, indeed, from my garden shed, through to later ones that look like they’d been designed reach the stars and menace everyone they met on the way.

A typical approach to interpretation is to ‘give you the facts’. As my eyes glazed over at yet another slightly dog eared sheet of laminated A4 with 12 point type telling me that the Vampire was powered by four normally aspirated engines and had a perspex cowling, i realised that i’d entered Museum Stupor, a common condition where i was lurching from panel to panel but without actually bothering to look at the planes. The exercise had become an exercise of consumption.

This wasn’t helped by the bewildering layout of both planes and individual panels. There was a narrative, certainly, but it was a pure linear temporal one. To be fair, there was regular placement of historical characters, but the core theme was one plane to the next. There was little continuity. I may be doing them a disservice, but after the first two galleries, i really was losing the will to walk much further.

Things picked up with a gallery about, of all unusual things, Kamikaze. Filled with letters from pilots, heading to certain and intentional oblivion on the winds of Divine victory, the story suddenly became about as personal as it’s possible to be. Sure, there was still no real, coherent narrative, but certainly the emphasis had switched to a deeply personal story. Indeed, only a couple of references were made to the actual aircraft themselves. There was lots more that could have been said, many stories half told, but it was a clear difference.

The balance was best achieved with the Carrier experience, a nicely structured 40 minute walk across the deck and into the interior of an aircraft carrier. Whilst moving from one diorama to the next, through the simulated interior of the vessel, and having to wait for each ‘watertight’ door to turn green before we could proceed, they managed to transfer us into a story. The narrative became immediate and immersive, helped by a degree of dry ice, shaking floors and flashing light, sure, but primarily because of a shift from just talking about planes to talking about life on an aircraft carrier, where planes formed a background.

I have no doubt that, to a true aerophile, the carrier experience was simply a distraction. I’m sure that they would have marvelled in more details about the Phantom, more facts and more figures, but for me, the narrative social history was much more satisfying. I guess it’s because of my reasons for visiting. I didn’t actually go to learn more about a particular plane, i went to hear a story about planes. I wanted to be entertained for an afternoon.

Ultimately, this much reflect back to that questions of who is the audience and why are they listening. Understanding how different audiences, with different motivations, will require different solutions is essential. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for interpretation, no more than there is any definitive book about ‘aeroplanes’, rather there are different books covering every conceivable different facet of design, build and use.

Variety is a wonderful thing in interpretation, as it is with any learning design. Knowing when to stick within conventions and knowing when to break them for powerful effect.

I couldn’t claim to be an expert on maritime aviation, but i certainly learnt a few things and enjoyed my afternoon, and, when push comes to shove, you can’t ask for much more than that.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Interpretation, Learning, Museum Education, Stories, Storytelling and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interpreting our military history. The challenges of joining social and industrial historical stories.

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