Museums in firing line

While Hugh Pearman acknowledges huge advances in design and technology effected by wars, he is in conflict with the dearth of spin-free war exhibitions

Weapons. They’ve always been taboo in the design world. No list of design classics ever includes a Kalashnikov or a Trident missile. We don’t talk about weapons in design terms, only political or emotional ones. Weapons are seen as generally bad things. But they’ve always existed and always will. Maybe it’s time we thought about why they are the way they are, as an effective weapon, by definition, has to be well designed.

We’re slightly happier with the weapons thing when they are put at one remove. We’re not keen on Browning machine guns, for instance, but we’re very keen on the Spitfire, as a piece of superb aeronautical design. Spitfires carried Browning machine guns, of course – and much deadlier weapons later in the Second World War – and killed lots of people. But that was defence, which sanitises the issue a great deal. Particularly if you are on the winning side. But the point here is that we look at the plane, not the guns. It’s like eating meat without thinking about the animal it came from.

Manufacturers associated with war find things difficult even if they diversify out of death machines, beat their swords into ploughshares, and generally do what we all hope they would do. One of the famous stories concerning the building of the Pompidou Centre in Paris concerns the steelwork. It was made by the German firm Krupp, which used to be famous for guns and thus knew all about the properties of strong steel tubing. So controversial was this contract that the great steel trusses of the Pompidou Centre had to be delivered at night on unmarked lorries. It’s almost as if people would have preferred the company to stick to guns.

At the RAF Museum, Hendon, you’ll find two of the most striking warplanes ever made. One is a Messerschmidt 110, conceived as a twin-engined fighter for the Second World War. The other is the Avro Vulcan, delta-winged mainstay of Britain’s nuclear defence in the days before we put missiles in submarines rather than carrying them on planes.

It’s worth seeking out the Messerschmidt because, looking up at it, you see that each engine nacelle bears the circular BMW badge, just as found on the bonnets of today’s cars. This was war, but there was still time for a branding exercise – something the designer-uniformed Nazis excelled at. On the British side, nobody thought of this. We’re told the Hurricanes and Spitfires and Lancasters had Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, but Rolls-Royce didn’t think to slap its logo on the engine cowlings. A marketing opportunity missed. And now BMW owns Rolls-Royce cars. Though not the aero engines company.

The Vulcan has a sinister beauty: you can sit beneath its huge bomb bay and watch a video of a squadron of them taking off like huge bats, amid a deafening racket. They were never used in anger, apart from an ineffectual attempt to bomb the Port Stanley runway from high altitude during the Falklands War. But that’s not the point. The point is, the technology developed for the Vulcan allowed Concorde to happen. Same wing configuration, similar engines, but carrying 100 people rather than bombs and missiles. War design advances civilian design. It’s sad, but true. War created computers. War advances surgical techniques, architecture, vehicles of all kinds, packaging design, food science, everything. It shouldn’t be so, but it is.

Design matters more in war than in any other aspect of human activity. The Messerschmidt 110, for all its grace, failed because it was not nimble enough. Today, a laser-guided bomb or cruise missile must be perfectly designed and tested. If it goes wrong, innocent civilians can die. And remember the endless saga about jamming British guns and useless British army boots? That’s where design should help. No point pretending otherwise.

Where design goes wrong in warfare, everything is at stake, such as WWll plane the Boulton-Paul Defiant. This looked like a Hurricane, but with a gun turret on top, behind the pilot. The pilot was meant to concentrate on flying, and the gunner on shooting. It was a disaster. The crew couldn’t communicate fast enough in the heat of action. The planes were slow. There were no forward-pointing guns. Defiants were swatted out of the sky. Bad design was to blame.

The subject is uncomfortable, but should not be ducked. The whole business of military design needs a good, objective exhibition, free from spin and jingoism. But who’s got the nerve to do it, apart from the unfortunately named Imperial War Museum?

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