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The story of aviation during the First World War is one that, until now, has remained largely untold. The First World War in the Air, a major new permanent exhibition at the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, London, brings to life the compelling stories of the people, the innovations, the engineering, and the aircraft of the war, and ultimately helps audiences understand the pivotal role of aviation—then and now.
The exhibition, which displays one of the world’s most significant World War I aviation collections, was a key part of the RAF Museum’s World War I centenary commemorations; its opening was synced with that occasion.
The exhibition is rich with interactivity, dramatic media, and period collections. The thrilling story of the evolution of flight, from its earliest incarnations to full-force fighting machines, is underpinned by stories of the people “on the ground.” The exhibition also explores the extraordinary expansion of the Royal Flying Corps from 250 men in 1914 to a Royal Air Force of 250,000 men and women in 1918.
The RAF Museum’s audiences typically possess varying levels of knowledge about its subject matter. Many of its local and international visitors are almost entirely unfamiliar with aviation, with the RAF itself, and in some cases with the context of the First World War. As a military and aviation heritage museum, the RAF Museum also attracts relatively specialized audiences with a highly developed interest in these areas. Addressing the needs of these diverse audiences was one of the goals of the project.
As the first element in the Museum’s new ten-year masterplan, The First World War in the Air was a pioneering project that sought to fundamentally change the way in which the RAF Museum relates to its visitors. Through a new approach to curation, interpretation, and design, we sought to enhance the visitor experience and engage a wider, more diverse audience with the Museum’s collections. Doing so allowed us to shape a groundbreaking template for future exhibitions.
Working closely with the Museum, we developed an innovative approach to the interpretation and exhibition design that substantially reshaped the way in which visitors would encounter the collections. Rather than simply showcasing the collections, the exhibition is strongly narrative-led and coalesces around a single strong message: He who controls the air controls the battlefield.
The exhibition’s primary creative strength lies in its seamless fusion of design and narrative. The inspiring story of the evolution of flight is dynamically embodied in the space through an innovative feat of design and engineering: As the chronology unfolds, the exhibition literally takes off—from the ground-based collection of early aircraft to a spectacular suspended display. The Museum’s magnificent collection, which includes the famous Sopwith Camel and the Albatros D.VII, is brought to life as the aircraft soar upward, occupying the air as they were originally designed to do.
The interweaving of people’s stories and technical accounts is accomplished through a design that amplifies the innate drama of the Museum’s large-scale collections, including its unparalleled selection of aircraft from this period, while giving space and voice to hundreds of smaller, often very personal, items. In this way, the exhibition appeals to many, without compromising the wealth of technical details attractive to more specialized audiences.
RAA also took an innovative approach to the exhibition’s media and interactivity to provide visitors with unique first-person experiences. Hands-on interactives, such as the Rocking Nacelle—an important early training device, allow visitors to feel what it was like to fly in the early 20th century. An interactive based on aerial reconnaissance challenges visitors to piece together sections of World War I battlefields. Visitors can also communicate with each other via a Gosport tube re-creation, an example of how pilots would have communicated with each other in the cockpit. A re-created Nissen hut allows visitors to experience life on the ground and try their hand at Morse code.
A strong graphic identity throughout the exhibition, drawn from the eye-catching graphic markings of the aircraft themselves, also plays a key role in the interpretive hierarchy by creating a simple, easy-to-navigate layering of stories and information.
The First World War in the Air opened in December 2014 in a special ceremony attended by the Duke of Edinburgh. The exhibition has already welcomed more than 9,000 visitors, and the Museum is currently in the process of undertaking formal evaluation.
Press reception thus far has been quite positive: Express describes it as “a stunning new exhibition,” and Culture24 praises the “subtle storytelling, intelligent use of interactive elements, sympathetic display of objects and a wonderful sense of place.”
The client is thrilled with the result, as evidenced by the following quote from Angela Vinci, Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation at the RAF Museum:
“My team at the RAFM and I have very much enjoyed working with RAA. The First World War in the Air project is at the forefront of a major shift in the way the Museum relates to its visitors and audiences, fostering a new interpretive approach and improved access to our rich collection. RAA’s creative work has facilitated this new approach, from the development of the exhibition’s main message and interpretive hierarchy through the completion of the fit-out, their team has been invaluable in supporting us to deliver our vision of a narrative-led and object-rich gallery that will engage with a more diverse audience.”