The inside story behind Southsea's new D-Day Story museum
Here Simon Frost gives the detail behind The D-Day Story museum, which was opened in Southsea this yearÂ
The seafront in Southsea has always been very special to me. I remember first visiting the areaÂ during the 1970s with my family; walking along the beach, admiring the tidy and colourfulÂ gardens and enjoying the incredible views across the Solent, after spending time at the Portsmouth Navy Days.
In 1999 I moved to Portsmouth and got to know the area well, including participating in many Great South Runs which every October finish on Southsea Common.Â
Although living now in Normandy, France I have continued to maintain my links with the city, soÂ when I read about the grand reopening of the D-Day Story this April by HRH The Princess Royal,Â Anne, I decided that when I next visited Southsea a tour of the museum collection was top of my
list. I am friends with the D-Day Story's Collection Researcher, James Daly from our Portsmouth JoggersÂ days, so I contacted him to ask if we could meet up to help me find out more about howÂ the project came about.
The D-Day Museum is a familiar landmark to local people as well as the thousands of tourists whoÂ come to the city of Portsmouth to visit the many attractions including the Historic Dockyard. TheÂ museum first opened in 1984, 40Â years after the end of the conflict. Memories from those daysÂ four decades previously were still strong with D-Day veterans' associations active throughout the UK, making it easier in some ways to tell the story to an audience, the majority of which will haveÂ remembered the war.
The former museum played an important role in communicating the key events surrounding D- Day including the leading figures who directed the Allied operation.
Times change however; and even though past generations may have understood the crucial importance of D-Day in defeatingÂ Hitler, visitor numbers were declining, people were becoming less engaged in the museum'sÂ work and the building was looking tired and dated. It was felt that a fresh approach was neededÂ and in 2012 the idea of regenerating the museum into what has now become the D-Day Story wasÂ born.
Three applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund were required before finally the go-ahead wasÂ given in 2014, with almost Â£5 million awarded to make the project a reality. Construction workÂ meant that the old building closed in 2017 before reopening this year.
The transformation is certainly timely with a major commemoration planned for next year. June 6,Â 2019 will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day: the day that the largest invasion fleet everÂ assembled landed on the beaches of Normandy. Over 100,000 Allied and German soldiers were
killed in the ensuing Battle of Normandy together with around 20,000 French civilians. It was aÂ bloody but a significant event and major turning point in the Second World War.Â
The scale of the operation is of course widely known; nevertheless, there is much more to the D-Day Story than the military detail, crucial though this was. After all, this was a conflict with suchÂ huge suffering on all sides.
Rather than focusing solely on the military campaign, the D-Day Story seeks to look at D-Day fromÂ the perspective of the thousands of ordinary citizens; soldiers, sailors, aircrew; civilians, adultsÂ and children alike whose lives were touched forever by the events of D-Day.
James explained the concept behind the D-Day Story and what the team working at PortsmouthÂ City Council had set out to achieve.
'˜The inclusion of the word 'story'Â in the title of the museum is extremely important for us,' he said. '˜EachÂ individual display tells its own story, but combined together forms a patchwork which we feelÂ communicates the tremendous impact of D-Day on people's lives.
'˜We decided to story board the collection a bit like a film, using external consultants with valuable experience in undertaking these types of major projects to help usÂ understand how to connect with modern museum goers. For example, it wasÂ important to ensure that the collection had plenty of objects which visitors could feel and touch;Â so you can watch a number of touch-screen interviews with veterans, listening to the formerÂ military men and women recount their stories and their vivid experiences of the fighting as wellÂ as their lives after D-Day.
'˜For each display, we considered carefully the message we wished to convey and our choice of words to describe the collection. I really enjoyed this aspect of the project as we used a veryÂ collegiate approach by facilitating feedback and discussion on the draft text, using 'critical friends'Â and enabling us to get exactly the right angle.'
The D-Day Story collection includes many new artefacts as well asÂ items which have been retained from the old building.
When the project was first initiated, James and the team were given a small budget to improveÂ the size of the collection, appealing both for donations and also purchasing items at auctions andÂ online, especially items relating to D-Day from the French perspective.
The team surgically
targeted gaps in the collection and in total there are now approximately 18,000 items. What is onÂ show is though just the tip of the iceberg.... given the size and space it is not feasible to display them all. Instead, the D-Day Story works with other museums to display specific items as well as
storing the remainder in its archives.
For the visitor, there is so much to discover and to learn from the amazing collection. Highlighting a few is difficult, although as we walked around the displays several stick in my mind.
TheseÂ include Betty White's duffle coat. BettyÂ was a five-year-old girl living in Gosport who collected more than 90 badges from the differentÂ regiments preparing for D-Day.
Another artefact illustrates that something can be delightfully simple '“ but also contain aÂ powerful message. James explained to me that a pencil was donated by a naval officer of aÂ flotilla of ships which he used to sign the orders during the D-Day campaign, soon after the
museum reopened. It came with the message: '˜This pencil launched the invasion.'
However, for me my most vivid memory that I will retain from my visit are the video interviewsÂ with the men and women themselves. They are poignant and extremely powerful from serviceÂ men and women and civilians who were required to do their duty for King and Country. Several
hundred people were interviewed; below I have selected two personal favourites.
One of the most moving was Ernie Brewer's. Ernie was amongst the troops who liberated BelsenÂ concentration camp but barely talked about it afterwards; even his wife did not know that he hadÂ served in the army or was involved in D-Day until he joined Normandy Veterans years later. In today's world, heavily influenced by social media and our desire to share even our innermostÂ thoughts; this is an astonishing insight into the pressures faced by those involved in the conflict.
There are lighter touches too amongst the videos, such as when Harry Marrington asked theÂ postman to be a witness at his wedding, proving that life continues even during wartime.
In addition to the exhibits relating to military and other aspects, the D-Day Story also has aÂ section dedicated to the embroidery work '“ the Overlord Embroidery '“ completed during theÂ 1970s. The impressive 83m-long tapestry tells the story of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy and wasÂ designed and stitched by artist Sandra Lawrence and the Royal School of Needlework.Â
Although the new building, cafÃ©, shop and beautiful gardens opened last spring, further workÂ continues with a significant new item to be added to the collection in 2019, prior to the 75thÂ anniversary commemoration: the last surviving D-Day tank landing craft will arrive on SouthseaÂ Beach to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings in 2019. The craft '“ called LCT 7074 isÂ appropriately enough being restored in Portsmouth, having been left in semi-derelict condition atÂ Birkenhead Docks. Later it will be put on permanent display outside theÂ museum.
The team behind the project aim to tell the story of D-Day to a 21st century audience, building onÂ the already comprehensive collection with new artefacts from both home and abroad.
Furthermore, the objective is to communicate these stories in a fresh and interesting way whichÂ visitors will find insightful; encouraging them to think and reflect on those events which led to June 6, 1944. On both of these counts, in my view they have succeeded handsomely and it is well
worth a visit.
Visiting The D-Day Story
Open 10am to 5.30pm (5pm from October to March) daily, except 24, 25 and 26 December. Last admission is one hour prior to closing.
During the year there are a number of special events including '˜Chilled Out' Museum days forÂ those who like a quieter visit and more subtle lighting and Touch Tours for blind and partiallyÂ disabled visitors.
Tickets are Â£10 for adults, Â£8 for seniors, Â£5 for children, and free for the under-fives. Family tickets of two adults and up to three children are Â£25.
https://theddaystory.comÂ // 023 9288 2555