“ Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery / Address: Aykley Heads Durham DH1 5TU / Tel: 0191 3842214 „
The Durham Light Infantry Museum, (DLI), and Durham Art Gallery is in Aykley Heads, Durham, just north of Durham City centre. It's not a big museum, the DLI takes up the first two floors and the gallery is on the top floor. It's set in extensive grounds in which outdoor events such as concerts, rallies and sculpture exhibitions take place in the warmer months of the year. It's a nice place to take a walk around, picnic in good weather, explore - there's a marked path named 'Jubilee Walk' which includes a hilltop view for miles around.
The original DLI museum was opened just after the First World War in a barracks in Fenham, Newcastle. It was later moved to Brancepeth Castle, Durham, until the current building which was purpose built, opened in 1969. The year 2000 saw a major refurbishment and re-opening. The exhibitions detail the history of the DLI from 1758 onwards, as seen through the eyes of the soldiers and their families.
The museum is host to an extensive collection of military memorabilia which includes uniforms, medals, headgear, weapons, decorative silver, photographs and personal items. Talks, workshops and other activities also take place at the museum, information about these can be found on the website at http://county.durham.gov.uk/sites/dli
~"Veni, Vidi, Vici" (Julius Caesar)~
I've visited the DLI twice, the first time was not long after it re-opened, with a friend whose son who was going through a phase of being keen on all things military. The second time was on New Year's Day this year with my husband and daughter. It was a fairly spur of the moment decision; it was a free entry day, something different to do to fill a wintry afternoon and I remembered there were some things aimed at children, such as dress up clothes and art equipment. However, I'm not remotely interested in military history, vehicles or weapons and had barely passed the entrance desk before I realised that our visit was probably a mistake.
Walking through the doors brings you into the shop where you pay entrance to the museum. A corridor to the right takes you down the passage that leads to the World War 1 exhibition space, (or you can head straight to the back stairs if you just want the art gallery). Hanging up at the entrance are red soldier's coats in various sizes for children to wear around the museum if they wish.
The exhibits here include many personal items. I didn't spend a lot of time looking too closely at this area on my last visit, although I spent more time here on my first visit. Letters from the front, photographs, personal belongings ...there can't be many people who wouldn't be moved by looking at some of the items here.
Also in here are several big guns. Forgive me for not being able to name them, but it's not something I take a lot of interest in. There were mounted guns and rifles. It was quite hands on, so it was okay to get hold of them and take aim and pretend to fire. There were a group of older children having a fine time playing with these. My daughter is only three and watches limited television, so when it comes to mounted machine guns she really didn't have a clue. When she asked what they were for, I began wondering how to frame an appropriate explanation, but as my daughter quickly decided that they would make excellent cat seesaws I agreed, they would. Far better use for them. If only.
~"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, "Mother, what was war?" (Eve Merriam)~
Also down here was the Dreadful Dugout - a 'horrible histories' version of the war especially for children. The Horrible Histories books are aimed at 8 to 12 year olds, so I assume this display was aimed toward that age group too. I found it strange. There were covered holes in the wall to which contained supposedly scary objects to feel such as toy rats, a urine soaked handkerchief, a sign next to one of the holes asks children if they're brave enough to shake the 'cold dead hand' of a dead soldier? I know children aren't interested in dull, dry facts and the idea of interactive exhibits is that they will have fun, get involved and thus remember more, but I would worry that this makes the horror of the war actually seem like fun. I thought the hand was bad taste, but maybe I was having a sense of humour failure that day. There's a tunnel in here which kids can crawl through, meant to represent the underground tunnels dug in warfare.
Head upstairs for the World War 2 exhibition which is the main exhibition area. The instant attractions up here are a couple of overland vehicles; a Jeep and Bren Gun Carrier. Kids were climbing all over these. My daughter enjoyed getting in the drivers seat. The highlight for me, as with my first visit, was posing for a photo in a German helmet. From what I can remember I'd say the museum has seen very little change over the past ten years. There are audio accounts of events which you can press buttons to listen to and there's a display of old military drums. Also on this floor is the medal room and a new exhibition about a recent tour in Afghanistan.
~The Art of War~
There are three rooms on the top floor, one of which is given over to children to make their own exhibits. On our visit the art began on the stairway with collages, as part of the 'Beyond Pattern' exhibition. There were some interesting and beautiful pieces in a collection of work from several different artists.
In the middle room there was equipment left out for children to get involved with. It continued the theme of the exhibition, so on our visit there was a bird shaped chalkboard and children were invited to add their own patterned squares to this. There were various art and craft materials around so we spent some time making pictures. We spent more time messing about in here than we did anywhere else.
The gallery runs various art and craft workshops for children, free of charge other than normal admission. Some of these seem to be themed around war, which puts me off. Looking at a leaflet I see a workshop to make remembrance cards and another called 'Wartime people'. It's also a messy play and story time venue for under 5's which involves an additional fee of £1.35 per carer and includes refreshments.
~"An Army Marches on it's Stomach" (Napoleon)~
When we visited the cafe it was quiet and I assume that due to the date, the selection of food available was limited. The menu listed home made cake but the only cakes on offer that day were slices of Christmas cake or mince pies. The food is basic - sandwiches, toasties, light bites, and reasonably priced. It's a small room, there are some comfy purple seats near the windows which look out onto the grounds.
Whilst the DLI is not somewhere I'd choose to visit often, I can see it could be quite fascinating for those with an interest in military history. As somebody who believes that the term hero is often used as propaganda to justify or glorify war, it's just not my kind of place. I realise that it serves a purpose for those who wish to learn about and/or pay tribute to family members who have been involved in military campaigns, and I understand the wish to honour people who have sacrificed their lives. Nonetheless, I don't think it's a place for children. As the mother of a young child I found it raised a lot of questions I didn't feel could be answered satisfactorily. I don't want to educate my child about warfare when she is still learning about the wonders of life, sadly I'm all too certain there will be many opportunities in later life for her to learn about the horror.
I've given the DLI four stars because although my feelings would make it a two or three star experience, I realise that objectively speaking most people who visit would find it a four or even five star attraction.
To sum up, the DLI is not a very big museum but it has a comprehensive collection of military items and tells soldiers stories in depth. It's inexpensive. The art gallery is also small, but interesting, no doubt to varying degrees depending on the current exhibition, and it provides some activities for young children. For me, a walk around the attractive grounds makes up the best part of the experience.
Opening times and admission charges, (copied from the website):
Adult Concession £3.50
Child (5 - 16 years) £2.50 (under 5 years free)
Adult Concession £2.50
Child (5 - 16 years) £1.50 (under 5 years free)
Group bookings by arrangement.
Charge includes admission to both Museum and Art Gallery.
Free parking on site.
Café serving drinks, snacks and light lunches.
Shop with souvenirs, books and gifts for all ages.
Lift to all floors.
Assistance dogs allowed.
Landscaped grounds for picnics, relaxing or exploring, with the 'Jubilee Walk' woodland trail and wheelchair/pushchair friendly paths.
The DLI is fully accessible for visitors with disabilities. Please contact us for more information to help plan your visit.
Toilets and baby changing facilities.