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Reaching for the sky at the RAF Museum

With a number of awards already to its name, the RAF Museum stands out from the crowd, but with impressive plans underway for the celebration of the service’s 2018 centenary, its team is reaching for the sky to fulfil a vision to be “a world-leading museum that engages, inspires and connects everyone with the RAF story”.

Aspect met CEO Maggie Appleton MBE and Director of Public Programmes, Karen Whitting, to find out more.

The cradle of aviation

Founded as part of the legacy of the service’s 50th anniversary, the museum has two sites, the former RAF Hendon and London Aerodrome at Colindale in North London and Cosford in Shropshire next to an active airfield.

It was officially opened in 1972 by HM The Queen at Hendon, ‘the cradle of aviation’. Dating from the early 1900s, the site pre-dates the RAF and early visitors included a school founded by Louis Bleriot, the first person to fly an aeroplane across the Channel.

It saw early experiments in aircraft construction and many historic ‘firsts’ including the first parachute jump, air mail and night flights. During World War II, iconic Spitfires and Hurricanes defended the skies of London from Hendon.

Britain’s only National Museum dedicated wholly to aviation

Colindale holds over 100 aircraft in five themed aircraft halls, while Cosford, acknowledged as one of the Midlands’ leading public attractions, displays over 70 aircraft and homes the National Cold War Exhibition.

However, as well as aviation technology, what the museum really plans to focus on is the people who made it possible, from early daredevil aviators through wartime heroes and to the thousands of service men and women whose contribution shaped the world we live in today.

£23 million Centenary project

The RAF Museum has won the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) intensity of visitor experience award for 2104/15 for its global web offering and the National Lottery’s Best Heritage Project award 2015 for the First World War in the Air exhibition – but that’s only the story so far.

For Maggie Appleton and Karen Whitting, these are exciting times as the Colindale site is transformed as part of its £23 million Centenary project. Their enthusiasm for the museum stands out, as does their commitment to ensure that it engages even more with the local community while attracting more visitors from home and afar.

Maggie, awarded her MBE in 2012 for services to museums and heritage, began her heritage career appropriately, in the Royal Armouries, before focusing on community museums. Karen was also with Royal Armouries and other roles have included project management of a major HLF-funded public engagement programme.

The Centenary vision

Maggie explains: “This is such a big opportunity. We are transforming the landscape of the Hendon site to bring back echoes of our airfield heritage.

We’re restoring a near derelict 1931 building as the new restaurant, introducing an aviation themed children’s playground and three new exhibitions spanning everything from the history of the RAF, to the story of the service today and a peek into the future. Education is an important part of our activities and we are building on that with embedded learning in every space plus a dedicated learning area and new educational programmes.

We look to attract visitors from all over the world, but very much care about contributing to our local community by providing a wide range of accessible activities and opportunities.”

One important new feature planned is an online storytelling platform for people to share personal experiences of life in the RAF. Maggie says: “Our aim is that the Royal Air Force’s story endures and enriches future generations and much of that story is made up from individual experiences.”

Ongoing funding challenge

With £7.6 million still to raise, substantial funding has already come from the Heritage Lottery Fund and corporate supporters such as BAE Systems, Government Libor Funding and individual sponsors.

Karen explains: “We have some wonderful supporters and a very active fund-raising programme. With a ‘name on a plane’ package people can have their name on a Red Arrow Hawk jet during the flying season, and we are the charity of the year at the Farnborough Air Show.

Last year, we introduced a sponsored race – the Spitfire Run – which is being held at both sites this year with all 600 places sold out.”

Activities in the hangers

The race is just one way that the team has devised to bring people to its sites and, as well as being a great community event, it has resulted in competitors returning for family visits.

Other activities in the hangars include children’s sleepovers, showing films like Top Gun alongside a Phantom and showing Wimbledon on a big screen.

The museum space can also be hired for evening events and open cockpit evenings, where aviation enthusiasts can climb aboard a range of aircraft, are always a sell-out. Plans for the future include becoming a wedding venue with options from intimate dinners to receptions for 400 under the wings of a Lancaster or Sunderland bomber.

In total, the museum employs 176 people supported by around 180 volunteers. Maggie says: “Volunteers come from all walks of life. Many are ex-RAF, with a lot of help our local communities and people generally interested in aviation. There are many opportunities for volunteers, including helping with after-school activities, and our corporate sponsors send in teams to help out on specific projects.”

With so much to offer the RAF Museum is a fitting tribute to the service it reflects and the people who have been part of it. And like the intrepid aviators that began it all, the museum’s current team has no hesitation in reaching for the sky in their ambitions for its future.

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