The centenary of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) is being celebrated in London, with the transformation of the capital’s RAF Museum, which reopens to the public tomorrow (30 June).
Nex-Architecture were commissioned for the £26m, 20-month redevelopment, which transforms the site’s Hangar 1 building with new immersive galleries focusing on the people of the RAF.
With the reconfiguration, visitors are given a clearer route through the exhibition spaces and past viewing galleries overlooking exhibited aircrafts.
“We wanted to create a backdrop that highlighted the objects, highlighting the content and giving it a sense of theatre,” said Nex founding director Alan Dempsey, speaking to Attractions Management at the launch.
“There were long discussions about how people move around. We created a central volume as you enter the hangar to have this pinwheel-style flow, making circulation easy and intuitive.”
The central hub – a structure created within the hangar – provides a café, shop, members’ room, galleries and flexible use spaces. Clad in aluminium fins inspired by the overlapping blades of a jet turbine engine, the architect’s plan for it to “play with visitors’ perceptions of transparency and solidity as they move around the building.”
“As you walk in the whole wall is designed to embrace you and the rear gives you and exhibition space,” said Dempsey. “We also wanted to bring the public upstairs to give them a different perspective over the exhibition. There’s a couple of great viewing spaces from the central area, which looks out over the hangar.”
Three new exhibitions have been created for the museum, offering interactive experiences drawing on the lives of the RAF’s people and their families, its technology and exploring its future. More than 500 previously unseen artefacts are now on display, with opportunities also available to handle original objects and try on RAF uniforms. Visitors can also try out their flying skills on a state of the art flight simulator.
The museum’s Hangar 6 building has also been renovated, with a new learning space and exhibition space looking at the modern day RAF from 1980 onwards. James Scott, Interpretation and Exhibitions manager at RAF Museum, led its redevelopment.
“We’re keeping the present moving forward, so in five years time we will add things in to reflect the RAF’s role in the world,” said Scott, speaking to Attractions Management. “Hangar 6 also features a new learning centre so a lot of our stem sessions will take place there.
“It’s more of a focused time period. We look more at people’s stories as opposed to looking at aircraft as objects or examples of mechanics. Every display has a person representing it. You see their face and their uniform, which we hope is really powerful.”
The museum’s outdoor space has been dramatically changed, with the former carpark now a large green space sitting at the heart of the museum site.
Agence Ter Landscape Architects have conceived the green space, which features circulation and views inspired by runways. A circular ‘taxiway’ at the site’s heart allows access to all exhibitions, with the area designed for visitors to relax on the lawns during their visit.
“We know that three quarters of our visitors don’t have knowledge of the RAF or even a specialist aviation interest,” said Maggie Appleton, chief executive officer of the RAF Museum and president of the Museums Association, speaking to Attractions Management.
“They come for a day out to a free national museum and this transformation has enabled us to be more interactive and provide a more immersive experience. We’ve got beautiful spaces indoor and out. On our new lawn, people can come with their families, bring a picnic and just spend time enjoying being here.”
The project has been funded through a number of sources, including an £8m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). BAE Systems has also shown significant financial support, as has the State of Kuwait, which has a long-standing history with the RAF dating back to the 1920s.
The historic site sits on the edge of the former Hendon Aerodrome in London’s Colindale area. The airfield was one of the first in the country and was instrumental during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. It has housed the RAF Museum since 1972.