The Tank Museum | Museum History

Museum History

The story of The Tank Museum

The Origins of the Museum

Bovington camp 1920The Tank Museum is based at Bovington – the main training centre for tanks in the First World War. Tanks were returned to the fields around the current Museum at the end of the war and some were saved as examples to teach new Tank Corps soldiers about vehicle development.

There is an early and often repeated story of Rudyard Kipling visiting Bovington in 1923 and suggesting more should be done to preserve these important vehicles. A shed was found to house what was to become the Museum collection. Vehicles were added to the collection as they came out of service, or trials and experiments concluded. Other tank-related memorabilia was collected and an Archive and Library begun.

The Museum told the story of the Royal Tank Regiment and its predecessors, and from 1939, the Royal Armoured Corps: comprising of the cavalry, the Royal Tank Regiments and certain Yeomanry units.  

The Effect of the Second World War

WW2 Hall2In 1940 a number of the tanks in the collection, including Little Willie, were dragged out to act as static defences in case of a German invasion. Other vehicles were scrapped to help provide material for a new generation of weapons and munitions.

In 1947 the current main WW2 Hall was used as the Museum - and opened to the general public; 2500 people visited that year. In 1951 a large collection of captured and experimental vehicles used by the School of Tank Technology was gifted to the Museum.  Later, examples of the captured material were gifted back to Germany to assist in the formation of their own tank museum at Munster.

The collection remained fairly stable for the next thirty years, growing slowly until, in 1981, it numbered about 120 AFVs in all.

A Period of Growth

A new phase of expansion came in 1981, with the arrival of George Forty as Curator. Vehicles were obtained, mainly through exchange, with other museums or as gifts, from all over the world.  Work began on the restoration of vehicles in the collection, and for the very first time, a small conservation workshop was established in 1984.  The first purpose-built workshop was erected in 1990/91 and subsequently the workshop staff have grown in number and the involvement of volunteers in this area has been key to its continuing success.

WW2 Hall3The need for new space to house the growing collection led to the erection of the British Steel Hall (an ex-factory building placed over a car park – now the Tank Factory Exhibition), the Tamiya Hall (funded by the founder of the model making company) and a new entrance hall. Following the Gulf War in 1991, the collection was further increased by captured Iraqi vehicles mainly of Soviet and Chinese origin. 

The creation of The Trench Experience in 1998 brought an immersive experience to the Museum displays for the first time. It has remained hugely popular with the Museum audience and was refreshed in 2016 with the Tank Men Exhibition, telling the story of the first tank crews.

Building a Modern Museum

The next phase created the most marked physical change to the site with the successful creation of a new 50,000 sq.ft. display hall and entrance – the Tank Story Hall, opened in 2009. The project was a major undertaking for the Museum which remained open throughout the building phase. The costs of the project - £16m - were met with a £9.6m HLF grant with the balance of the costs being funded by the Museum.

/cms-images/Elefant mainThe remaining halls have now been re-displayed with more in depth thematic displays including The Battlegroup Afghanistan exhibition and Warhorse to Horsepower.

The Museum has built up relationships with other organisations worldwide, resulting in loans of vehicles and whole exhibitions. In November 2016, an Elefant from the US Army Ordnance Training and Heritage Center arrived to complete the Tiger Collection, running until the end of October, 2018.

The exhibition, supported by World of Tanks, featured the Museum’s Tiger I, both Tiger IIs, a Jagdtiger and the Elefant, which was on public display in Europe for the first time since it was captured in 1944. The Sturmtiger was represented by its formidable weapon and an augmented reality version pioneered by World of Tanks.

Spring 2018 saw the Museum’s first travelling exhibition – ‘Tank, Back to the Future’ – from the National Military Museum of the Netherlands. The principles of firepower, protection and mobility are represented through a series of models, showing 1000 years of armoured warfare. It is also the Museum’s first exhibition which doesn’t feature any real tanks!

Conservation in Action

Matilda II Overhaul Turret Removal_23The Museum is now entering the fourth stage of redevelopment – ‘Conservation in Action’.  With the assistance of HLF funding, a new state-of-the-art workshop will be built adjacent to the Vehicle Conservation Centre (constructed 2013). The next step, beginning in 2019 is redeveloping the Second World War Hall. Seen by many as the heart of The Tank Museum, this is the final exhibition to be revitalised since the Tank Story Hall was opened.

The collection continues to grow as vehicles are still being sought and occasionally ‘pruning’ occurs as better examples of a vehicle appear or the significance of an item is re-assessed. Some vehicles are collected just to demonstrate and run, and duplicates are welcome of classic vehicles so one can be kept for reference whilst another might be restored to running order. 

Now a major tourist attraction with over 200,000 annual visitors, the Museum still has a teaching role for the modern Army. With an outstandingly comprehensive Archive and Library and Supporting Collections the Museum also engages with a wide variety of other audiences and users such as industry, academia, designers, filmmakers, family history researchers, model makers, computer games creators, school groups and has an online audience of millions.

All this is done as a charity so your support as a visitor or donor to the collections will ensure this work continues.