Impressions of the National Military Museum Soesterberg, Netherlands

National Military Museum Soesterberg

Wim de Natris is a Dutch historian who researches the Interbellum, the fascinating time before the war. He works often for museums, arranging archives and digitization. He combines these two superskills in his company De Natris Erfgoedprojecten. He wrote a guest blog post for De Museologue about the newest museum in the Netherlands: the National Military Museum Soesterberg. 

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The National Military Museum (NMM) in Soesterberg, Netherlands, opened its doors in the weekend of December 13 2014. And now the Netherlands has another new and large museum covering one side of its national history, after re-opening the Scheepsvaartmuseum (Shipping Museum) and Rijksmuseum (art) in Amsterdam in the past years. The abbreviation NMM for this military museum only differs with one letter from the National Historical Museum: NHM. This one was meant to become the ‘umbrella’ museum of national Dutch history. But that idea became history before execution. The National Military Museum is a true example on how a large museum CAN be built within time and budget limits. No hassle and lack of vision, but clear goals and distinctive choices instead.

First impressions

As a ‘friend’ of the museum I was invited to see the museum during a try out opening. I noticed a ‘plus’ immediately: Soesterberg is in central Netherlands. You can easily reach it by car, although you’re facing a greater challenge traveling by public transportation.

I’ve got nothing but praise for the building. It has already been reviewed by several Dutch newspapers and everyone seems to appreciate it. It must be unavoidable for this building to win some architecture prizes. It is a spectacular gigantic glass box with a smaller closed box inside, containing the work spaces and expositions. On top of it there is a watch-tower from where you have an amazing panoramic view over the surrounding natural park.

Stuff and hardware

The ground floor is called the Arsenal and has military hardware spread out. Tanks and vehicles shine there, sorted by weapon type or military service and in chronological order. Airplanes are hanging from the ceiling. This bonanza reminds me of the impressive Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, USA, and the Deutches Technik Museum in Berlin, Germany. Those are also museums with a lot of ‘stuff.’ It must be fantastic to have so much space to allocate when setting up the expositions. A downside of the glass walls would be that the low hanging winter sun might force you to see it all from one side: I watched the exposition with the sun in my back.

There are some tasteful open-depot expositions in the inner box on ground floor level, displaying weapons and uniforms. Very nice. But two evocative dioramas seem quite out of place, even though they are quite modest. In one of them you see two sharpshooters watching and guarding an official gathering on the Dam, Amsterdam. The second one shows soldiers atop a factory in Delft on May 10th 1940, when they fire on German airplanes raiding the country. The recorded dialogue is really awkward. Surely Dutch soldiers in the midst of heated battle did not exchange a controlled kind of slovenly Dutch! It sounds like modern theater, but then even without emotions. Cursing and foul language is what clearly belongs in this situation, because fear, adrenaline and aggression are undeniable ingredients of military fights. I am a bit surprised that the museum didn’t take its chance to tackle this taboo. I get the feeling that maybe the museum is a subtle marketing tool for the, surely, impeccable Dutch army.

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Questions and problems

But on the floor we find expositions in which questions and problems about the army are not evaded. I saw a confronting television interview in which J. Hueting openly speaks about war crimes committed in the Dutch Indies, which led to the Excessennota: a list of crimes that the Dutch army has been charged with. On this floor I like the clearly marked route throughout the museum. It leads you past all expositions and gives you some clearness that I miss in many other museums. The green arrows could be made even more distinctive for my taste.

The last room of the route is dedicated to an overview of the Dutch military history. It shows an impressive and hallucinating selection of video images on the inside of a dome. I wonder why the museum did not put this great introduction at the beginning of the route? Something else I noticed, especially as a former employee of the Scheepvaartmuseum (Shipping Museum) in Amsterdam, was that the naval battles were not shown. Clearly, the naval part of military history is found elsewhere. It shows that every museum faces limitations when making unavoidable choices in an attempt to keep near to the subject matter.

Fascinated by war

Overall, though, I feel reassured by this museum. The NMM is a modern museum that meets the 21st century developments and aims for a large public. For these reasons, I am glad it is still a historical museum and did not become an entertainment park, as some other renovated museums did.

Moreover, the museum has been active on Twitter and Facebook for months. There is a ‘do-app‘ for use in the museum and I found a nice video on YouTube showing the ‘Klas van ’45’ (Class of ’45), about how school children are educated about the events of the second world war (Dutch spoken, but still nice)

It made me very curious to find out what else school children can do, see and experience in the museum.

This museum shows that culture of war, not only dry military facts and events but also war reality and repercussions in society, receive ample attention. ‘War culture’ is a relatively young area of scientific research in military history. The whole museum is actually proof of our eternal fascination with war. One of the last quotes in the museum, by Martin van Creveld, says it all: ‘The actual reason that war exists is, that men love war and women love warriors.’ That reason alone will assure the visits of men and women, boys and girls alike. Explosively.

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