Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Modifications at the RAF Museum, Hendon, London - the good & bad.....

Just recently a friend of mine took me to the Royal Air Force Museum situated at Hendon, in North London and as we were walking around outside I thought to myself I hadn't been for a while, probably around a year, yet something was different; but I couldn't quite put my finger on what is was.

After a look around inside the main halls, it wasn't until we were back outside in the main carpark that it suddenly came to me! Looking across at the Battle of Britain Memorial Hall, I saw that what was once always a 'solid walled end ' to the building was now totally glazed - the complete end wall had been replaced with a sheer glass panelled wall and you could see the rear tailplane of the Short Sunderland inside!

View of the nose showing the new glazed rear wall

As if that wasn't enough, I could also make out the unmistakable shape of the Supermarine Walrus in the corner, so off we headed at full trot to see what this was all about. I had glanced across in that direction to look at a carpark sign when we arrived and I guess my brain took in the view but didn't register it, as it were. Incidentally, you may already know that the whole place is free to get in, there being no entrance fee whatsoever, but also in the time I've been away the outside carpark is now 'Pay and Display', the charge being £3.50 for 3 to 6 hours stay, not too bad I suppose.

How dark it used to be before the structural modifications

Anyway, in we went and followed the route to the Sunderland, up the stairs to the viewing platform which also doubles as the entry point to the gangway that leads you down to the front entrance door of the craft; this being one of the world's only flying boats that you can walk right through (That's if you can get the hordes of rabid kids out of it first at the weekends..!).

Straightaway we noticed a difference up there. In past days one could take some serious detail shots of the nose, cockpit and engine cowlings, together with the various smaller details such as the wing leading edge inlets and with the solid rear wall causing a darker background the camera's flash would hit the target each time and produce excellent shots. This time however, it was immediately apparent that any camera would be shooting against the incoming light from the glass end wall directly behind the tail, and there was an enormous amount to contend with as the sun was shining bright outside at the time.

Even standing there with my Mk.1 'eyeball' I found myself straining somewhat to focus on the details and even looking at the engines in the cowlings was a bit difficult as the light came in over the wing straight into your eyes. It was a bit like looking at your car's radiator grill with the headlights on dipped beam, if you see what I mean.

Moving on down into the craft, there was no discernable difference inside - it's still the greatest feeling in the world for a flying boat 'nut' to walk through there; it does it to me every time I go through her and frankly if that was the last ever act I did whilst on this planet, you would still have to use a steel lever to get the smile off of my face!

Exiting at the starboard rear door, and walking down the steps back onto the floor to ground level, it was immediately apparent that things were different in this hall at this point; forever. Gone was the dark gloom that pervades areas of this museum like a daunting, creeping miserable 'half-life' existence, replaced now with the one thing that that place needs in abundance; daylight.

The rear of the Sunderland positively shone in the sunlight streaming in through the glazing and I got my first decent detailed look at the rear turret, ever. Boy, what a difference! You could see the whole of the rear, sides of the hull, rear and tops of the wings in perfect detail; at last.

We walked around here, both ways, like two of those toddlers we had avoided like the plague that morning (they come in here, we go to the next hall - that sort of thing, always trying to keep one hall away from them - and mostly succeeded) and we were mesmerised. Never had either of us seen her that close in daylight before.

Mind you, trying to take shots straight onto the nose and across the wings from head-on was still as bad even at ground level. Every shot I took showed the light coming in from behind the object I was photographing and the resultant picture was fighting the incoming 'in-your-face' daylight , that sort of shot. Very disappointing and we were using state-of-the-art digital cameras as well. It was at that point that we looked around and decided that the very best thing the museum could do was to knock out all the side walls and do the same as the back wall, glaze them. Let daylight in around the whole craft; it surely must be possible, or even glaze the roof but whichever way get some more daylight in there to counteract the effects of the rear wall.

I was thankful that I had a mountain of shots from the front taken in the past when the wall was solid as I certainly won't ever get them again, leastways not until they do as I suggest with the roof or the sidewall.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining; far from it, I love what they have done here! For all the museums life that I have known since the late '70's it has been the darkest museum I have ever seen in my travels. Indeed, when we left that area on the BoBM Hall and walked to the other end where the Stuka, Spitfires and Hurricanes are it was so dark, incredibly dark that I could not get a single picture with full flash! It was so dark that we couldn't see the tiny stanchions that hold the 'do not cross' wire 'ropes' and we walked into them more than once. They were a hazard and we remarked that if we tripped and injured ourselves the museum authorities wouldn't have a leg to stand on and could be sued under current Health and Safety standards. I don't know if that is the case exactly but I bet someone would have a go. The whole museum is so damn dark that I found myself squinting just to see where to walk in certain areas.

Anyway, back to the rear of the Sunderland; after finishing with her my attention was drawn to the Walrus residing in the corner. Oh, fantastic! At long last, moved from her original location in one of the main halls she is now right next to the glazing and in full view, bathed in light and the difference was fantastic! Also, someone had laid out the walkways around here in such a fashion that one can virtually walk all the way around her. (Thanks from me to that man!!)

There she is in all her glory

At long last I was able to re-shoot one of the earlier walk-rounds I had done a few years ago over in the previous location and this time drink in all the details as I did so of the engine, wings, rigging and guns - what a treat as the Walrus has many such details to view being a biplane from another era. 

                                                  Perfect detail shot in daylight; what a treat!

The shots were perfect and once again we found ourselves discussing the merits of standing these aircraft in natural daylight. It was such a joy to behold and one could walk around and around without once having to squint.

Never got a shot this clear before now

Meanwhile, back in the main halls area we walked through the 'Milestones of Flight' hall this being the later of the halls, built as an extension not that long ago, and this was always my favourite as it has intelligent use of glazing and is flooded with natural light making viewing and therefore photography easy.

I do hope that the removal of the end wall of the BoBM hall is the start of a concerted effort to 'let there be light' to one of the most important collections of aircraft anywhere in the world.



plastic stanchions said...

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scott davidson said...

Very effective stylization of the attractive woman, absorbed in her sewing. Nice flowing purple cloth leading into the distance. Quite different, and somehow the same, as this woman resting from her sewing in a sunny garden, painted by American impressionist artist Frederick Carl Frieseke, The painting can be seen at, and ordered as a canvas print.