James Daly – a local historian, author and Portsmouth City Council Cultural Services Assistant – gives a behind-the-scenes exclusive on redeveloping the city’s D-Day Museum to tell the story to a new audience.
Other places in Britain have their own D-Day stories, but nowhere else in the country do so many important D-Day Stories come together in one place. D-Day shows Portsmouth and its people playing a leading role in world events, in 1944 and today. D-Day is part of Portsmouth’s DNA.
The D-Day Museum originally opened in 1984 for the 40th Anniversary of D-Day. It is the only museum in Britain that tells the story of one of the most climactic events of the Second World War. By the 70th Anniversary in 2014 we knew that the displays were not working as well as they could. The world has changed so much since 1984, and so have the expectations of visitors. We were very aware while we were working on the redevelopment that we had to tell the story of D-Day for a new audience. When the museum originally opened most visitors either took part in the Second World War or their parents had. Now, the events of 1944 are so much more distant in time.
During the redevelopment we worked with consultants who brought new ideas and had worked on other major museum redevelopments – such as the Riverside and Kelvingrove museums in Glasgow – and also introduced us to script-writing techniques similar to those used in radio producing. We argued about commas and speech marks, about brackets and semi-colons.
Every display in the new museum has a focus – we knew what we wanted it do or say to visitors. This helped us to choose objects – like most museums, the objects on display are only a part of the whole collection – and to decide how to write about them. Nothing in the new museum ‘just happened’.
We knew early on that there were several key principles that we had to really work on to make sure that the museum worked for our visitors.
- Personal – The vast majority of the objects in the museum are about people. D-Day was a huge event, but it is made up a tapestry of millions of individual stories.
- Authentic – We know who owned most of the objects on display, what they did or where they were found. The unique thing that a museum has to offer is the chance to meet authentic history.
- Accessible – The museum needed to be accessible for everyone. This is true both in terms of physical access and making sure that the displays and writing are accessible.
- Perspectives – D-Day was a European and world event that involved everybody. It involved personnel from 13 allied countries, French civilians and German troops, who in reality came from many different nationalities. It included men, women and children.
People are often amazed by how eclectic the objects on display are. The displays do have the usual weapons, vehicles and uniforms that you would expect to find in a museum about a military story, but they also include some incredibly human objects too, like Bertie the Ventriloquist’s Dummy or Gustav the Pigeon’s Dickin Medal. Perhaps our most popular object, though, is Betty White’s coat. Betty was five at the time of D-Day. As the troops marched past her house in Gosport on their way to Normandy they gave her badges as souvenirs, and her mum sewed them onto her coat. Perhaps one of the best known objects in our displays was owned by a five-year old girl, and we think that that encapsulates exactly how the story of D-Day involves everyone.
The response to the museum so far has been overwhelmingly positive. It has already been shortlisted for some major awards, including the European Museum of the Year Award and the Museums+Heritage Awards. But some of the best feedback has been from visitors, in person and on TripAdvisor.
The content of the museum has also helped us to develop themes for our D-Day 75 anniversary events. We know that they have to work for everyone, and that we have to ensure that they have a strong legacy in terms of keeping the veteran’s stories alive.
It is important to remember that thousands of people from all backgrounds were killed in 1944. D-Day was the start of the liberation of Western Europe, but it came at a huge cost in lives. Each one left family and friends behind. 118 people from Portsmouth were killed between D-Day and the liberation of Paris. D-Day itself might have taken place in Normandy, but it left a huge mark on Portsmouth.