Five years ago this month I wrote an article in The Spectator denouncing the National Army Museum after its £24 million Heritage Lottery Funded refurbishment. The concept of decolonisation was then in its infancy, and I criticised the museum’s relentless attempts to make visitors ashamed of the British Army’s supposed legacy of imperialism and slavery, when that constituted only a tiny part of its overall glorious story (and it was in the forefront of fighting against the latter).
I am thrilled to say that today the museum, which has been under new leadership since 2018, has returned to the aims of its Royal Charter, anchored itself to historical facts rather than contemporary politicised fashions, and thus been totally transformed.
The new director, Brigadier Justin Maciejewski, is the first leader of the museum to have experienced soldiering first-hand. As well as being a passionate historian and a former management consultant with McKinsey, he commanded the British and coalition forces in Basra City in 2007, where he was awarded a battlefield DSO. It is largely down to him and the trustees (of which I’m one) that the museum sticks rigidly to the mission set out in its Royal Charter of 1960 to tell the story of the ‘history and traditions’ of ‘Our Army’ across the world and down the centuries.
By adhering to first principles of evidence-based history, Maciejewski has saved an institution I love. There is now a varied and vibrant public programme of events that connects the story of our soldiers with wide audiences, from history-lovers to veterans and their families, to people with no military connections but who are keen to learn more about our shared past.
Every year in late September the Museum helps host the Chelsea History Festival, which has military history at its heart. Far from being embarrassed about military history, the museum has set up a series of research fellowships and partnerships in the UK and abroad which work closely with academics who believe in freedom of expression. While many museums are trying to decolonise their narratives, the National Army Museum recognises that decolonisation is actually part of the Army’s history, rather than an invention of the Museum Association. The connections the museum has with Commonwealth armies are strong proof that many nations are proud of the history they share with our Army.
This week I’m opening the Global Gallery, which tells the Army’s worldwide story from an evidence-based, objective perspective. Do come along to the Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea, and see Lawrence of Arabia’s magnificent robes, Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Clive of India, the only contemporary painting of James Wolfe, the battledress Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck wore as commander-in-chief of India and during Partition, and the extremely rare and beautiful contemporary painting of a soldier of the 8th West India Regiment in his red coat carrying his Brown Bess musket.
It’s all too rare that a great national institution is rescued from the jaws of wokery, and really worth celebrating when it happens.