I visited the National Army Museum’s Special Forces: In the Shadows exhibition last week, taking an afternoon off work to go and see the museum, which I hadn’t visited since its refurbishment. I got rather engrossed in the one exhibit, so didn’t take in the rest of the museum, so will certainly have to go back.
This article will, in short, be a brief write up/review of the exhibit. I won’t share many of the photographs I took of the displays, since I would strongly encourage people to visit themselves.
As far as I am aware, but for a few small displays in regimental museums this is the most in depth curated display that has been publically opened relating to UK Special Forces, and while many books have been published, and the IWM has touched on elements of unconventional warfare with its SOE and Intelligence exhibit, I think this is a first.
Obviously I have a keen interest in UKSF, specifically much of the gear, and also design, so this review is certainly a geek’s eye view. I would characterise the exhibit as being a lot of ‘filler’ in relation to the ‘killer’ (no pun intended). However the ‘killer’ is really, really good.
Firstly I will address the problems I perceived with the exhibit before going on to highlight what it did really well.
The most prevalent problem was that the really good bits of the exhibition were somewhat concentrated spatially, with no real discernible ordering thematically or chronologically.
I believe the general structure was meant to run as follows:
- Introduction to the concept of Special Forces and need for them.
- Basic structure of UK Special Forces.
- The origins of the regiments and units (and precursors) which now make up UKSF.
- The types of men who join, and the selection criteria they must satisfy.
- Pretty much everything else.
- Special Forces in the media.
- Reflection on why their work remains secretive.
The first four sections were done pretty well, and the stories of the originals were striking, if familiar. I found the inclusion of a couple of artefacts relating to that period arresting, specifically ‘The Complete Folbotist’ written by Captain Roger Courtney, founder of the Special Boat Section, is a concise, witty document which conveys perfectly the period in which it was written.
It is the ‘pretty much everything else’ section which is problematic. There are some absolutely intriguing and great displays in this section, including a display cabinet with weaponry used by UKSF (I was told before I arrived these were airsoft – they weren’t, everything was 100% real), and an interactive display on Op Barras, moving on to kit setups for SBS MCT operations, SAS assault kit from the 2000s and Op Nimrod, kit from the Malayan Emergency, and SFSG assault kit (this did feature an unfortunate airsoft M4). These displays though were scattered rather haphazardly about however, and the area was dimly lit, with the lights on the glass casing occasionally obscuring the displays (mostly an issue when the kit in the display cases was dark, such as the MCT kit).
Huge amounts of wall space were devoted to ‘interactive’ activities or simply window dressing graphics, for instance between the weapon display case and Op Barras screen, there was a series of large ‘spot the sniper’ pictures of the type occasionally shared around the internet. On the reverse wall a huge manifestation showing the silhouettes of soldiers moving through a jungle took up a large proportion of that section. There was also a ‘special forces game’ played on 4 iPads inset into peli cases – the less said about that the better…
I realise there was likely a requirement to include a number of interactive features, and the exhibit has to cater to a range of people with diverse existing knowledge of the subject, and ages, but the space devoted to these games seemed inconsistent with their worth, and caused the genuinely fascinating things to be condensed and people to jostle around them.
In order to curate such an exhibition, I imagine you would have to balance detailed information with interactivity, and ensure that while people can flow round a space, it wouldn’t become congested at peak times, so not every inch of space can contain detailed, and sometimes too specific, information. I felt that while individual artefacts and displays were very engaging, the whole didn’t quite work. It would have been informative for instance to directly contrast Op Nimrod kit with the more modern CT kit, and highlight the differences and evolutions. Likewise the development of SFSG, and their various setups and missions would likewise have been an interesting section. The contrast between older gear, missions and tactics and newer ones would have been fascinating had they been presented as linked to one another, and it would have made for a clear narrative. It would also have highlighted where things haven’t changed, and much of what worked decades ago may still hold true. The evolution of the threat and what it takes to counter it, and how the skills and dedication of the men must remain at the pinnacle would have been compelling.
The scattered approach to display and lack of any discernible interrelation or narrative between them was perhaps the exhibition’s biggest weakness.
There also appeared to be a degree of pruning in terms of what was covered, with more controversial conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland and Iraq being largely omitted, despite the fact these are among the most publically known. Certainly the omission of Task Force Black seemed incongruous given the media coverage it has received in Mark Urban’s book of the same name (which was lacking from the gift shop section to accompany the exhibit) and ITV’s Exposure: The Kill List.
Despite the above criticism of the layout and relative attention paid to various elements, the exhibit is a must see for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter who lives near or is visiting London. At £8 for a full price ticket, and less for the various concessions, it is excellent value, and that’s not even addressing the entire rest of the refurbished and remodelled museum, which is free.
The access the museum has secured to a number of interviews was likewise impressive, from 1Para paratroopers after Op Barras to members of the Special Forces from the 80’s until recently. The genuine attention paid to the founders of the various units who forged the ethos that lives on today is also something that stays with you, and has encouraged me to read more about the unit foundings, as well as their more contemporary exploits.
Unlike many displays of similar items, the kit was authentic and attention to detail excellent, while it had at times a really personal , evocative and occasionally tragic insight into the people behind the various units featured.
I’d strongly recommend any who are interested in UKSF past or present drop the museum a visit, take in the exhibit, and drop a few quid in the donation box at the end.
Find out more about the National Army Museum, how to get there and what’s in the museum at:
And find out more about the Special Forces: In the Shadows exhibit at:
The Special Forces: In the Shadows exhibit opened on 17 March 2018 and runs until 18 November 2018.