‘I wanted to tell the marines’ story... from 1664 to today’

Director of the Royal Marines' Museum, Eastney, Chris Newbery, pictured outside of the museum
Director of the Royal Marines' Museum, Eastney, Chris Newbery, pictured outside of the museum
No Caption ABCDE PPP-180121-141658001

LETTER OF THE DAY: Lonely? We can help you in Portsmouth

Have your say

The scrap piece of wood had been fashioned into a more than passable impression of a cricket bat.

It might not have been the finest English willow, but it obviously worked.

Alongside the bat is a photograph of that blade in action on a dusty, sandy wicket in Afghanistan.

Close by is another thin, rectangular piece of wood. Carefully engraved on it is a list of names of men serving at the forward operating base they called Inkerman, named after the famous battle of the Crimean War. A few yards away a screen flickers showing a series of faces of men killed while serving their country in Afghanistan. They are all Royal Marines.

‘What we are trying to do is tell the biography of the Royal Marines from their beginning in 1664 right up to the present day. It’s vital that we are as up to date as possible,’ says Chris Newbery, the just-retired director of the museum at Eastney, Portsmouth, dedicated to telling the story of the elite fighting corps.

Another exhibit shows about a dozen boots, desert boots, worn by marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each is labelled. ‘Stitching rots in the heat’, says one. ‘Sole comes away,’ says another.

Each one is, apparently, an improvement on the last with the bootmakers taking marines’ comments into account as new models come off the production line.

Chris adds: ‘Every new recruit, when they go on the 32-week commando training course at Lympstone in Devon, comes here to learn the history of the corps and the unique spirit that it fosters.

‘They also come here before they are deployed and that’s when we instil in them how important it is that they bring things back for us to add to the collection – items of their everyday life in the field which makes the museum so much more meaningful to visitors.’

Hence the cricket bat, name board and boots.

Chris says: ‘We can get things like the most modern firearms easily. But we often get people donating items 30 or 40 years after the event.

‘This is fine, but the immediacy has been lost. I’ve always wanted to make this museum a living biography of the Royal Marines.

‘That’s why we encourage them to bring back the little things which show visitors exactly how they live day-to-day in a combat zone.’

Chris’s use of the word ‘wanted’ – in the past tense – is deliberate. He retired yesterday, 14 years after he took the helm at Eastney and four decades after starting work in the museum sector.

Previous jobs involved setting up the Museum of London at the Barbican in the 1970s and a period of 10 years as deputy director of the Museums and Galleries Commission. There was also a stint at the Pallant House gallery in Chichester when it was run by the district council.

He was the first director of the Royal Marines Museum who was a museum professional rather than a former Royal Marines officer and he came to it because he wanted to return to the coalface.

‘I’d spent about 15 years trying to help museums develop in an appropriate, modern way; giving advice about how to get grants, that sort of thing.

‘I got to the point where I thought this is all interesting and I’ve been lucky enough to travel widely at home and abroad, giving lectures in places like Mexico and Croatia, but it’s time to take some of my own medicine.

‘So when this job came up it just seemed perfect and I’ve loved it.’

We chat in his office, which looks out over the old parade ground at what was the Royal Marines Barracks, beneath a couple of watercolour prints by Gordon Rushmer, the Petersfield-born war artist.

One shows marines in action in Afghanistan, the other depicts them on a training exercise in the Arctic.

The latter draws a wry smile from Chris. He started the job in January 1998. A month later, because he thought he ought to sample Royal Marines’ life at the sharp end, he found himself in the north of Norway on just such an exercise.

‘There was me, an MP, a Royal Navy captain and a couple of people from the MoD’s finance department all living as Royal Marines live and learning their survival techniques.

‘It was February, minus 30 or 40 degrees, and we were sleeping in sleeping bags directly on the ice. We all learned very quickly that special mindset which keeps the commandos going and it has everything to do with a sense of humour...’

Chris, 62, is especially proud of three things in particular which will be part of his legacy at the museum.

‘Museums these days have to be interactive.

‘That’s why I introduced the oral history side of the museum – interviews with Royal Marines about their service in the Second World War, the Korean War, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and now Afghanistan and their anti-piracy work.

‘When the lads come back we interview them about their experiences and play the recordings as part of the experience here.’

He has overseen a programme of special exhibitions in a purpose-designed gallery.

There are usually two a year. Topics have included the Cockleshell Heroes (who trained a pebble’s throw away on Eastney beach) and the Royal Marines in Helmand.

Chris also introduced a permanent display called The Making of the Royal Marines Commando.

He has refurbished the medal room which contains all 10 Victoria Crosses won by Royal Marines and is particularly proud of the redesign of paintings in the Minstrels’ Gallery.

He points out the portrait of a dashing young officer from the 18th century – Lieut George Dyer.

‘The owner before us was Elton John. He was redecorating his home and decided he didn’t want it, so we bought it at auction.’

Chris adds: ‘Before I took this job I knew the Royal Marines were special – the Royal Navy’s sea soldiers. Now I know exactly what a breed apart they truly are.’