Museum dedicated to the Battle of Normandy in Southsea
PUBLISHED: 11:52 18 June 2018
The UK's only museum dedicated to the Battle of Normandy has just reopened in Portsmouth following a £5million transformation. So what can visitors expect at this new-look attraction? Viv Micklefield goes on patrol at The D-Day Story
Making something which happened almost 75 years ago appear real to today’s Millennials is a big ask. The historical facts inevitably blur on the page. A Hollywood blockbuster only briefly captures the attention. So, given the opportunity to revamp Portsmouth’s D-Day Museum and in the process enhance its international standing, those behind this major heritage project have come up with a bold new visitor experience.
Originally opened in 1984 by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, the Museum played its part in recounting the Allies’ momentous invasion of enemy-occupied Western Europe during June 1944. Operation Overlord, as the military campaign was named, turned the tide of the Second World War. However, with an ever diminishing number of veterans remaining, recalling their personal experiences before these became lost in the sands of time was more and more pressing. Thanks largely to Heritage Lottery Funding of £4.2million, together with support from Portsmouth City Council who run the Museum, plus the Victorious music festival, the Dulverton Trust, and the Museum’s own Trust, the green light was received for work to commence 12 months ago. Yet also deserving of mention is ‘Heroes’ Tide’, a fundraising CD of songs composed by Royal Marine musician James Dunlop and performed by local choirs, in honour of those who took part in D-Day.
As Jane Mee, museums and visitor services manager, is quick to point out, local residents and non-residents alike have backed the decision to use the collection in a completely different way.
“We’ve also received £25,000 in small cash donations. That’s quite a surprising amount to have raised, and is indicative of the level of support for what we’re trying to do.” Jane continues: “The whole D-Day story is now told through objects and personal accounts. It’s not a textbook retelling; it’s far more evocative than that.”
Indeed, having entered the now surprisingly spacious foyer – its view through to the seafront beyond a reminder of the mission ahead for the embarking troops – the visitor is taken on a journey, beginning with the ‘Dunkirk to D-Day’ gallery. And, immediately, it’s the minutiae of war that stands out. There’s a watch belonging to a soldier killed in action, and a telegram from a Dunkirk evacuee. Alongside which, is the civilian perspective; from the Southsea resident’s permit to Betty White’s coat. The four-and-a-half year old lived in Gosport and collected badges as soldiers destined for France passed by. Whilst the cabinets housing these smaller objects are dwarfed by the machinery of war, such as a British amphibious tank and a German flamethrower, nonetheless these have a big impact.
“The artefacts play much more of a starring role than in the old displays,” confirms Andrew Whitmarsh, the Museum’s development officer. He goes on to explain that, before, the Museum was primarily focused on the “big picture” when it came to D-Day. And that’s not the only difference.
“The old displays really ended on D-Day, whereas now we continue the story through to the end of August 1944. We also have a gallery called ‘Legacy’ that looks at topics such as veterans leaving the armed forces at the end of the war, and the long-term impact on veterans of their wartime service and memories.
“Of course because of the significance of the D-Day story we have material from across the country, and beyond. Some artefacts were already in the collection, others are more recent additions.”
Relating to different aspects of the D-Day story, these include a home-made 21st birthday card with a poem, given to a Lance Bombardier WJ Edgar from a fellow soldier when they landed on Juno Beach. And a hand coloured map of both this area and Sword Beach, used by General John Crocker commander of the British 1st Corps. Loans from the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum and the US National World War 2 Museum, serve to emphasize the importance of these Portsmouth galleries.
Andrew says: “Telling the story from different perspectives has also been important: there’s obviously a strong emphasis on the Allies – the British, American and Canadian, but we have parts of the story dedicated to the French and Germans too. It’s a shared history and young people in particular want to hear about it.
“Carrying out a complete revamp of a museum’s displays – rather than updating a small section – is a rare opportunity. Our funding has also enabled us to have conservation work done on a small number of artefacts.”
One important part of the collection which still takes pride of place, and is now a finale to any visit, is the magnificent 83 metre Overlord Embroidery, commissioned by Lord Dulverton of Batsford as a tribute to the sacrifice and heroism of those who took part in the Operation. Additionally, as Andrew explains: “There is also a completely new gallery showing how the Embroidery was made and the people who designed and stitched it, which might inspire visitors to create their own textile works of art.
“Different parts of the displays should be of interest to different groups of people depending on their age and interests. They can watch films, look at the objects, try out interactives, or whatever combination of those things they prefer. We hope there will be something for everyone.”
According to Melanie Elliott, the Museum’s retail and marketing officer, it’s not only about the displays. “We have a large purpose-built learning space called The Briefing Room. This space will be used to host school groups, community and holiday activities, including our annual D-Day conference. It will also be available to hire.”
As before, she says, volunteers are on hand to help visitors to research their own family’s D-Day history. And there’s more information on many of the 1500 artefacts on the new-look website.
It will, of course, be up to visitors, whatever their reason for exploring the Museum’s collection, to decide if the project team’s own mission of ‘The epic made personal; the personal made epic’ is a success.
Jane Mee remains confident. “I do think there’s something special in the way that we’ve told the stories. We’ve worked very hard to bring these to life out of respect to the veterans,” she says.
Where: The D-Day Story, Clarence Esplanade, Southsea, PO5 3NT
When: for opening times go to theddaystory.com
How: adults £10.00; children aged 5-17 years £5.00; family tickets £25.00; concessions available. Nearest stations are Portsmouth and Southsea, or Portsmouth Harbour; the Museum is on several bus routes; by car take the M27 or A3(M) to the M275 and Esplanade, where parking is available.