By Adam Selby-Martin.
Late 17th Century Scottish dragoon hiding in Edinburgh Castle in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The first two articles in this series looking at A New Alternate History can be found Here and Here.
Adam continues with the series in which he recounts how playing with Airfix tank models relates to a New Alternate History.
And if that doesn’t tempt you to read on, nothing will.
The Decline and Fall of Regimental Museums and New Alternate History: Thoughts and Ruminations on the Triumph of Style over Substance in the Alternate History Genre
I thought I’d begin this particular essay by acknowledging up front that this is a slight diversion from the path with my wider series of essays/thought pieces on the state of the Alternate History genre; but I firmly believe that if you bear with me for a few paragraphs, you’ll begin to see both the overarching point that I’m making and also how it connects to the need for a New Alternate History period within the genre.
In my younger years (a phrase which becomes simultaneously more terrifying and unsettling the more I look at it) I had the great fortune to be a volunteer for two regimental museums in England: The Museum of The Queen’s Royal Hussars in Warwick, and the Redoubt Fortress and Military Museum in Eastbourne which jointly housed the collections for the Royal Sussex Regiment, The Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, and the Sussex Combined Services. The time I spent in these museums rank high in my achievements in life, superseded only by my wife and family, and I fondly think back to the many hours I spent developing exhibitions and displays with the curators and museum staff.
The Redoubt Fortress and Military Museum in Eastbourne, a fine example of the Victorian paranoia over a possible French invasion (see also Fort Brockhurst, Fort Nelson, Browndown Battery, Spitbank Fort. There are 45 such forts around Portsmouth alone. I'm not saying Palmerston was paranoid, but they are quite pretty. Especially the Sea Forts. I digress). Adam was here, and possibly polished that very gun.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
My mind still boggles at the sheer breadth and variety of material that I worked on even in those two relatively short periods of time: there were days when I might be carefully cleaning a service revolver and learning the history of its service with an officer of the Queen’s Royal Hussars in the trenches of the First World War, and other days where I could be deep within the armoury in the Redoubt Fortress looking at their shelves of muskets and rifles, mildly concerned about the number of grenades and explosives in boxes, despite repeated assurances that they were all disarmed in one way or another.
I once spent several hours in a local hobby shop along the Eastbourne seafront buying Airfix models of Mark IV tanks for a trench warfare diorama, and I also had the tremendous honour of assisting in the creation of a display based around Winston Churchill’s service in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, including being able to handle actual historical artifacts used and worn by Churchill. I even managed to help clean and polish the personal staff car of Generalfeldmarschal Erwin Rommel, captured during the North African campaign by one of the regiments represented in the Redoubt Fortress’ collection.
Rommel's staff car, before Adam cleaned it up.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In those weeks and months volunteering in both museums, I had the great good fortune to get up close and personal with historical artifacts and gain a level of knowledge about historical events, personalities and even cultures that I’ve neve come close to ever since.
It has been my great fortune to have been able to work in both of these museums, because both now have either closed permanently, or their funding has been so cut to the bone that they have had their contents removed and placed into long-term storage or even sold or discarded if not practical to keep somewhere.
There do appear to be plans to merge both collections into one location, and I hope one day to see that new museum, but I suspect it will still only be able to demonstrate a fraction of what they had on display when I worked in them. And this pattern is being repeated across Britain – whereas 10-15 years ago, you could see dozens of these small museums across the country, including many scattered throughout London, they have all either closed permanently or become only accessible by serving or retired soldiers, or researchers who book onto a very long waiting list. Now instead of being open to visitors new and old who might be interested in learning about these regiments and their long, colourful, and often complex histories, and their far less known roles in civil society, these museums are shuttered and their exhibits either draped in darkness or scattered to the winds.
“Those are very interesting and fascinating and exceedingly well-written anecdotes”, you might say, “and you are a very handsome fellow, but I’m afraid I don’t see what that has to do with the topic of a New Alternate History, which you appear to be veering away from with frightening speed.”
Well, firstly, I’m flattered, and second, in one way you’d be entirely correct. In both Regimental Museums that I worked in, their exhibitions and displays were entirely and correctly focused on historical events that actually occurred. Even back in those halcyon days, where heritage funding seems like the time of ambrosia compared to now, these museums only had a limited amount of room, time, and resources and would hardly have benefited from even a small ahistorical display. So, in that case, you’re entirely right in noting that this has nothing to do with Alternate History.
But in another second way – and a far more important one because it proves me right – you’d be absolutely dead wrong. Because when you consider the matter from even a slightly different angle, then the link between these Regimental Museums and Alternate History is not only hidden in plain sight – it’s also crucial to the future success of the genre because it represents something that I personally believe is missing from the Alternate History genre at large: humanising elements that allow one to focus on thoughtful substance over imagery, and the current genre tends to generate storylines that impart shock value and controversy over anything thoughtful or thought-provoking. I don’t want to appear snobbish when writing this, and I am certainly someone who can fully appreciate a shock reveal or more pulp-style elements in their genre reading: one of my favourite sci-fi genre reads of recent times, which I reviewed over on my blog , is Damien Larkin’s Blood Red Sand which sees a multi-national force of Allied soldiers pursue remnants of the Third Reich to Mars at the end of the Second World War, with lots of delightfully gritty, pulpy battles unfolding across the planet’s surface.
But when we consider the current state of the Alternate History genre via its most popular and influential adaptations, for example, when we continue to see its obsessive focus on the Stars and Bars and, in particular, the Swastika. And in these adaptations that are now constantly available on streaming services and DVD and Blu-ray, for example, there is an obsession with focusing on controversial, eye-catching imagery over content of substance; and shock value storylines over anything that critically analyses the counterfactual scenario that led to these stories being told.
Take as an example some of the set-pieces found in The Man in the High Castle, many of which are found in immensely popular YouTube Shorts or TikTok videos (and other things The YouthTM watch these days): lovingly-crafted CGI spectacles that see blood-red and void-black Swastika banners unfurled across New York skyscrapers, or Swastika-clad crowds cheering maniacally as the Statue of Liberty is blown up amidst fireworks by victorious Nazi occupiers.
Billboard for Man in the High Castle, season 2.
Picture courtesy Amazon.
Or take the BBC’s recent adaptation of Len Deighton’s classic novel SS-GB, which while only set months after the British defeat in the war, still rejoices in showing the viewer a ruined, shell-pocked London skyline wreathed with Nazi banners and imagery.
There’s a lot more that I could talk about here in regards to symbology and representation in Alternate History adaptations – films and TV series – as well as the preponderance of Nazi Victory-focused media that continues to dominate the genre; and I intend to do so in a future essay in this series. But the point I am trying to make here is that these are merely the most obvious examples of shallow, imagery-obsessed representations of Alternate History genre fiction, valuing style and shock over substance. Substance which I believe can only be found by the author, reader, and viewer actually taking the time to review the historical record in more detail, and attempting to understand the human elements which are so often forgotten when there is instead a focus on Swastikas over London or the Statue of Liberty.
I firmly that museums are one of the best ways in which we can ensure that we focus on the human elements of history, and therefore also Alternate History, as they allow us to come face-to-face with exhibits, documents, and items of historical interest that tell us about the people at the heart of timelines that might be twisted and altered to create a Nazi or Confederate victory. And it concerns me that many museums are either closing and robbing us of their artifacts, or are being so thoroughly renovated that we can no longer actually look closely at these items and appreciate and understand them – consider the ‘new’ version of the Imperial War Museum, which replaced an amazingly human-centric focus on conflict and its human cost with something that resembles an art gallery with light ‘historical’ themes.
Regimental museums are – or unfortunately rather were – at the heart of this ability to focus on human elements of history, and particularly the conflicts that so often dominate the Alternate History genre – either as active storylines or more often as background that leads to the current counterfactual scenario, such as a more successful Operation Sealion in SS-GB. Because while these museums obviously focused on military history in the form of dioramas and displays centred around battles and military campaigns, they are also a vital source of knowledge about the men behind the uniforms; the women and the children who followed and supported them in a usually unacknowledged way; and the ways in which regiments affected societies and were affected by them in turn.
Indeed, it is often the small, obscure, and less well-known historical facts that can make a piece of Alternate History fiction believable and credible to the reader, especially if it is being written about a period beyond the 20th Century that is generally understood by the public at large. Eating habits and foodstuffs, cultural icons and beliefs, and even the (often far more complex and nuanced) relationships between different races and religions. All of these things – and far more – were covered by displays and exhibits in the museums I volunteered at; the notion that military museums are just low roys of displays with medals and bayonets is actually a widely-held notion that could only really be dissipated by visiting one of them.
Many of these facts are often absent from more prominent history books that range over periods covering years, decades, or even centuries; and while they can be found in certain websites like Wikipedia or search engines like our friend Google, they can be inaccurate, distorted, or outright fabricated depending on the source. Museums like the Redoubt and similar locations can provide that level of detail that is otherwise lacking in other available historical sources.
To take just one example, in both Museums we would often have on display uniforms belonging to British soldier of various historical periods that visitors could pick up and handle, and even physically wear at times. Replicas, of course, but painstakingly constructed from the same materials used during their respective periods. Wearing pieces of these uniforms, or even the whole outfit, rapidly makes one appreciate how a soldier of, say, the Waterloo campaign might have struggled to simply stay on his feet with the weight of his uniform, gear, and weapons, let alone march in time, run at the double, or engage in protracted firefights. Or how that uniform might double or triple in weight if soaked in water from being rained upon or after wading across a river.
Royal Marines having a picnic, 1982. In the Royal Marines Museum, you can try hefting one of those packs (weighing around 70lbs) and imagine carrying it across peat bogs. Or at least you could. The Museum in Eastney, Portsmouth, closed in 2016. It's trying to raise money for new premises.
Picture: Editor's collection.
That sort of knowledge and realism can really only be imparted into fiction – both historical and ahistorical – when one experiences it is person. And opportunities for that to occur, as provided by locations like regimental Museums, are by now almost extinct.
When I volunteered at the Redoubt, I had opportunities to handle much of the equipment and many of the firearms used by British soldiers across the centuries, imparting knowledge and understanding that made ‘solid’ things I had previously only known from written and audio-visual sources. I marvelled at the weight of a Brown Bess musket when I held one in my hands – one can intellectually ‘know’ that such a weapon would be heavy because of the materials used in its construction, but it is not until you actually hold it with both of your hands and feel the solidity and heaviness of the musket – that you can truly appreciate the effort taken by the common soldier to march with it in his hands, or slung over his shoulder, for 12 hours a day through wind, rain, snow, and hail. The same appreciation also came from reading the many primary sources the museum had in its archives and were often on display. In history books, these are often heavily edited if they appear at all. Only in these do the voice of lesser-known and hidden categories of historical peoples come to life: camp followers, family members, civilians who interacted with the regiment, and those veterans left broken and often bewildered by their service. People of many races, skin colours, and religions who nonetheless found themselves wound into the complexities of a British Army regiment.
In my opinion, the information found in these museums – with their focus on the more human and lesser-known elements behind the soldiers who served in their respective regiments – provided a humanising and often thought-provoking viewpoint that helped to contextualise historical issues and events I had only ever come across in isolated slices in history books through the years. This is a viewpoint – or perhaps more accurately a series of viewpoints – that are sorely lacking in much of today’s most popular Alternate History fiction.
If, as I fear, it is now a permanent feature of the UK that these smaller and more specialised museums no longer exist, and that our only museums are large ones like the Imperial War Museum that operate under a very different attitude, with large open space and barebone exhibits like art galleries, then something crucial to both the genre and to historical understanding will have been lost. And everything associated with the Alternate History genre – authors, readers, and viewers alike – will be fundamentally poorer for it.
Comment on this article Here.
I feel obliged at this point to highlight an Alternate History book series that looks precisely at the complexities of a regiment in the British Army, including the racial and religious mix, and the various categories of camp follower. The series is set in the 1920s in an alternate history where the First World War never quite started (yet, at any rate), and follows the fortunes of four young British soldiers.
I refer, of course, to my own works from the Building Jerusalem series. It may be poor form for me to use this blog to publicise my own work, but in my defence, it does seem to be appropriate for the subject of the article.
And, of course, if I don’t, who will?