As soon as you get through the gates to the Yorkshire Air Museum, you get the feeling that you are somewhere special. The museum, like many provincial museums, presents a vision of faded glory. The lines in the car parks are worn down by the troupes of visitors, the planes stored outside of hangers need a lick of paint, and the large outside site of dispersed buildings combine with the piped 1940’s music to give an almost post-apocalyptic feeling. By no means is this a criticism – in fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The entire place has an authentic patina, and wandering between the Nissen huts it is easy to imagine you are walking around during the Second World War. To quote the guidebook:
“There are many superlatives associated with Elvington: the largest former RAF Bomber Command Station open to the public; the best preserved wartime Control Tower in Britain; home to the only French ‘heavy’ bomber Squadrons in WWII; site of last Luftwaffe aircraft crash on British soil […]”
Now, I love nothing more than poring over the pages of a historical tome, but I’ve dreamed (admittedly secretly) of visiting a World War Two airfield. History isn’t just a dry list of facts. History actually happened – people lived lives, loved and lost, and for me it is understanding the social impacts of history which is the most rewarding aspect of its study. As such, to walk through the same environment as those we are studying gives an eerily poignant sense of understanding.
Beyond being a fantastic experience as a location, the museum houses some fascinating exhibits. There is a thoughtful and well presented exhibition on Bomber Command – a subject which divides historians and public alike. The exhibition gives historical context, as well as exploring the losses incurred during the campaign (on both sides). It explores, in depth, the stories of the airmen who flew in the bombers. It is no-holds-barred emotional roller coaster.
Of course, being an air museum it is also home to a wide range of planes. From a replica Wright flyer, to a BEF II, from the best preserved Halifax bomber remaining in the world, to a cacophony of post-war planes. When choosing how to arrange exhibits, there is a scale running from minimal exhibits, presented with a clear narrative, running to maximum exhibits displayed higgledy piggledy. Both have their place, yet nothing brings out your inner child like an old hanger stuffed to the gunnels with aeroplanes. As you duck under the Halifax, you check out the mirage to your left, the Ford car on your right, and the 19th century glider suspended from the roof. Where the rest of the museum presents a social history, this is full force, turned-up-to-eleven, rub your knees engineering excitement. You wander around, drooling gently. This isn’t about education, this is about inspiration. I get the impression that everything is regularly shifted around, and that you could easily get lost time after time. It is very similar to my favourite d-day museum, which is literally a room stuffed to the gunnels with d-day paraphernalia. Other museums presented the context and the impact, whereas this museum, perhaps unintentionally, replicated the madness and the intensity of the invasion through its overload of artefacts. Context is important, but it cannot transport us back in time to see what our fore-bearers saw.
Finally, I was impressed by the living nature of the museum. Not in a re-enactment sense, but in a keeping everything running sense. Various hangers we visited had people pootling about, tinkering and tuning the planes. The museum runs a number of planes which still fly, as well as a number which, despite being grounded, still run. On the day we visited, we arrived as a small group of enthusiasts were firing up a Vicount. This wasn’t done for show, hadn’t been advertised, this s just a group of people keeping the plane running. Modern history is engaging not just because it is recent, or because of its impact on us, but because the technological advances which define it are still jaw dropping. This was a sensory assault – you could see it, hear it, smell it, even feel it. It was an experience which endeared me to the museum, and I look forward to visiting again.
Entry is about £8 pp, although as you can make a full day of it that doesn’t strike me as being unreasonable. If you do decide to pop along, make sure you dress warm – most of the huts have no heating, and a by the end of the day the lack of feeling in my feet was enough to make me miss a pill box exhibition..