Not just the armouries of war but its human stories, too. Laurence Alster looks at military museums which encourage visitors to reflect
Most children see military museums as a sort of weapons heaven. While adults quietly appraise the exhibits for size, form and function, children usually gape or, unless restrained, try to commandeer the surrounding ordnance for their own impromptu Mother Of All Battles. For small children in particular, war is always more of an adventure than a tragedy.
If all military museums emphasise adult interests, the better ones pay due regard to younger visitors. One good example is the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp, near Woolwich in Hampshire, which houses some magnificent specimens from assorted conflicts. More than 260 exhibits show how the tank, and tank warfare, has developed since the introduction of the dreaded "wonder weapon" in 1916.
The early models on display are certainly impressive. Immense and apparently invulnerable, they must have looked to the Germans like something from another world. Looks, though, were largely deceptive; in truth, these lumbering prototypes were more notable for their size than their effectiveness.
Both during the Second World War and afterwards, size was more effectively combined with deadliness. Dozens of tanks, many manned by suitably-dressed models, exemplify this principle. As much favourites for their mythic status as for their size, the huge German Panther and King Tiger dominate the main hall, while an M46 Patton 1, complete with fierce tiger face painted immediately below the gun, is always surrounded by visitors. In the same hall, tanks fitted with mine-clearing flails and removable floats show how armour was adapted for special purposes.
Spread over several large halls, sundry other vehicles (including a large haul from the Gulf War, both Allied and Iraqi) impress with their bulk and design. They also horrify with their firepower, graphically illustrated by three metal plates of different thicknesses, all punctured to varying degrees by tank fire. Nearby, a note tells of spall - bits of armour on the reverse of these indentations - which fly around inside the tank. The results can be imagined.
So engrossing are these main exhibits that student visitors sometimes neglect the peripheral displays. Teachers should guard against this; if the technology of war takes centre stage, equally absorbing humanity is in the wings. A fascinatingly eclectic collection takes in medals, letters, models and various documents, the personal markers of great political dramas. Here, a Gold Cross of Honour of the German Mother, granted by the Nazis to women who bore eight or more children (only that, for all those nappies?), nearby a bullet-holed bronze head of Goering, elsewhere a written request from three little girls to Lord Kitchener, imploring him to spare their pet donkey, Old Betty, from First World War duty: "It would break our hearts - we have given two others and three of our own family are now fighting for you in the navy." With an ease denied most servicemen, the beast was duly exempted.
The Museum of Army Flying in Middle Wallop, Hampshire, offers a similar mix of the mortal and the mechanical. Teachers looking for inspirational material on the early history of flying will enjoy this place, as will those concerned with the ill-fated airborne assault on Arnhem in 1944. Like several others featured in the museum, this operation involved the large-scale use of gliders, a means of military transport shown here in versions both large and improbably small.
More orthodox flying machines, especially helicopters, occupy the main ground floor hall, where young visitors can play pilot in the cockpit of a Scout helicopter, as well as test their co-ordination skills on specially-designed equipment. All very interesting, this tackle, but awfully impersonal; again, you have to look to the sidelines for that vital social slant.
This is found in a large number of dioramas and display cases. Students taken with the drama of Arnhem will think again after studying a display dedicated to an airman, initially listed as "missing, believed POW", but eventually declared killed in action. On the other hand, they'll smile at communist propaganda leaflets from the Korean War that show pretty girls canoodling with plump plutocrats. "Mr Moneybags is in Florida this Christmas" runs the caption.
Younger children, though, really take off in the props department. This is where they are kitted out in anything from a First World War airman's uniform - complete with goggles, gauntlets, silk scarf and flying jacket - to that of soldiers from the Gulf War. A great opportunity to bring M*A*S*H.'s Hawkeye and Hotlips to Hampshire, perhaps, or to play Biggles vs the Red Baron.
One Nether Wallop diorama shows a First World War German airman treating a wounded British counterpart with what was then customary solicitude on both sides. The situation is echoed more elaborately at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset, in a hall given over to a superb display of vintage flying machines.
There are some cherished names here, all set in suitable tableaux: a French Spad up-ended in a shell-scarred landscape, a Sopwith triplane with, beneath, a uniformed couple standing sorrowfully before a cross fashioned from an aeroplane propeller, and a tiny but deadly Fokker triplane similar to that flown by von Richthofen, the Red Baron himself. With machine guns stuttering and shells whining on a background tape, this is an exciting first impression.
And it gets better. Not only are there many beautifully preserved combat aircraft from the Second World War and afterwards - easily the most popular, especially with younger children, are those with the fiercest names (the Grumman Hellcat, Supermarine Seafire and similar) - but visitors can also clamber aboard the flight test prototype Concorde 002, or visit the aircraft carrier Ark Royal via a simulated flight in a Royal Navy helicopter. So what if the flight deck is only a cavernous, dimly-lit hangar stuffed with aircraft? The sound effects - planes roaring on to and away from the carrier - still have people flinching before looking round and giggling, red-faced.
Like the others,Yeovilton offers far more than just an opportunity to moon at machines. As well as some very good displays on supersonic flight and crucial naval battles, obvious attractions are a section given over to the role of women in wartime plus a clever display, housed in a mock airship gondola, on technical and political developments in the inter-war years.
In many ways, though, the least gimmicky displays carry most weight. Older students will be drawn to a detailed section on the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War, complete with some deeply moving, if scarcely credible, testimonials to eager self-sacrifice ("Please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die"; "I think of springtime in Japan while soaring to dash against the enemy"). "A Brush With War" is an exhibition of paintings, cartoons and drawings inspired mostly by aerial combat with excellent captions on perspective, technique and intention.
Nearby, the artwork of students from the King Arthur's Community School, Wincanton, makes an instructive contrast. Titled "Lest We Forget", the collection concentrates not on the glory but on the suffering, fear, sorrow and death that, at one time or another, must have come from the business end of at least some of the hardware all around.
The Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset BH20 6JG Open daily 10 am-5pm Group admission: Pounds 2 per pupil, minimum 10 pupils; two free staff per 10 pupils, others Pounds 2.
Tel: 01929 403 463 * Museum of Army Flying, Middle Wallop, Stockbridge, Hampshire SO20 8DY Open daily 10am-4.30pm Group admission Pounds 1.50 per pupil, one free staff place per ten pupils, others Pounds 3. Minimum group size 10 pupils. Tel: 01980 67442128 or 01264 781086 * The Fleet Air Arm Museum, RNAS Yeovilton, Ilchester, Somerset BA22 8HT Open 10am-5.30pm April to October, 10am-4.30pm November to March Groups Pounds 2.30 per pupil, one free staff place per 10 pupils, others Pounds 3.30. Minimum groupsize 15 people. Tel: 01935 840077