The Royal Signals Museum...
The Royal Signals Museum at Blandford is small on the outside, but big on the inside. And it tells some of the most important stories of our time.
Mercury, the messenger of the ancient gods, is the emblem of the Royal Corp of Signals and what could be more apt. This bit of the British Army has the job of making sure that vital messages can get from one place to another under the most challenging of circumstances, including battlefields, where good lines of communication can mean the difference between victory and defeat for generals. And the difference between life and death for their soldiers.
For what seems, from the outside, to be a fairly small affair, the Royal Signals Museum opens out like Dr Who’s Tardis on the inside to cover a huge amount of territory - and it does it well.
From the ill-fated runner Phidippedes, who is reputed to have been a message-runner for the Athenian generals during their War with the Persians, to the most modern of satellite communications. This museum covers the lot superbly.
Not only does it explain how each type of communication system works, it also gives you the background to the developing technologies and science that made them possible and then puts them into context of the battles and conflicts in which they were used.
The result is a heady mix that offers something for almost everyone. If history is your thing, then straight and simple, there’s more than enough of that within the walls of this great museum to keep you enthralled for several hours. Whether it be the history of the British Empire and the wars it fought to keep things that way or the history of two global conflicts, right through to the role of modern communications in modern conflicts and peacekeeping.
But history is just one of many threads a visitor to the Royal Signals Museum can tag on to. There is also a whole other story, about the development of communications technologies. Great developments in pure and practical science which we now take for granted. In a few generations we have gone from sending messages with flags and boards to bouncing them off satellites in space. The technological journey that has allowed that to happen in both military and civilian contexts is amazing and involves some of the truly great names of the modern world, like Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell. And whilst some developments do happen quickly in eureka-type moments of inspiration, more often than not they evolve and feed off the achievements of others.
At the Royal Signals museum you’ll see how messages have been sent on foot, by visual signals, by wire, by radio and a whole lot more. You’ll find out just how far you might be able to send coded messages using just a mirror and the sun (most likely a lot farther than you think).
And then on top of all that, there are truly humbling stories of the people and animals that have acted as the vital link for soldiers and secret agents in the field. There are sections of the museum’s impressive and engaging displays devoted entirely to the role of carrier pigeons and dogs, to historical role of women in warfare and to the agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) (who were also often women).
In history, as today, communications were key to the success or failure of the most significant military events of the modern world. Good communications were essential to the success of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings: their breakdown at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, a factor in this becoming the infamous “Bridge too Far”.
For the SOE and other operatives behind the lines, like the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS, reliable covert communications allow them to send information out and receive instructions in. SOE agents sometimes paid a heavy price for protecting that important link and a section of the museum gives great insight into the very special people who did it.
All this and a whole lot more is up for grabs at this splendid, well-presented and well-kept exhibition. But don’t go thinking this is an old-style museum just about glass cases and display boards. Certainly there is plenty of that, but they’re very good ones with lots of big kit in between to keep the wow-factors moving. And there’s a good kids’ quiz available on entry to get youngsters interested and engaged, although younger ones may tire of this before they get to the end.
On the plus side, by the time they do, you are probably just about to head up to the next floor where they will be “like totally” distracted by a mass of interactive high-tech wizardry which will have them driving trucks, positioning radio masts and satellite feeds and even triangulating enemy positions…um…and bombing them! It’s great!!!
Dorset is blessed with some really amazing military museums and this is right up there with the best. If you go, you and your kids will learn masses about our history at home and abroad; about science and its application in communications technology; and about civil communications technology. It is an amazing visit for boys and a good one for girls who are not too far into the pink and fluffy spectrum.
The use of information panels is mixed in with good use of modern, hi-tech IT and video. The footage of WWI troops laying cable on horseback at the gallop is not to be missed - come on BT, what are you playing at! And as the Royal Corp of Signals is home to the White Helmets display team, vintage motorcycle enthusiasts will be in seventh heaven!
The Royal Signals Museum is a great indoor visit which doesn’t cost a lot for a family ticket! On a wet day it’s a good way of entertaining and educating, but chances are on a dry day you’ll have more space to enjoy all that’s there. The “NAAFI” canteen in the museum means there’s refreshments and food on site, so you can make a day of it if you want to. Certainly you’ll need several hours to do justice to all that’s to be seen and done.
At a practical level, the museum is on an active military base, Blandford Camp. This means you have to check-in at the Guardhouse at the entrance to be issued with an ID and car-pass. So make sure you have a means of showing them who you are! And make sure you follow instructions and return your passes at the end of your visit. You’ll probably never feel safer at any museum you ever go to! And whilst it’s a minor hassle, it all adds to the fascination of what is a truly special and educational visit.
Go there. Learn stuff and enjoy!
History is just one of many threads a visitor to the Royal Signals Museum can tag on to. There is also a whole other story, about the development of communications technologies. Great developments in pure and practical science which we now take for granted"