Helping history in taking flight: What it's like to be a curator at RAF Museum Cosford

Delving into the past and uncovering untold stories is what makes museum curator Tom Hopkins tick.

He is playing a part in ensuring the heritage of the Royal Air Force is preserved for future generations.

The 32-year-old, who grew up fascinated by aircraft, joined the team at RAF Museum Cosford just over a year ago.

Home to one of the largest aviation collections in the UK and attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, it is dedicated to telling the story of the service and its people.

Before taking up the position at Cosford, Tom completed a Heritage Lottery-funded traineeship at Worcestershire Cathedral Library and Archives and previously worked at sites including Guildford Museum and the University of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science.

A recent project at Cosford has seen him working as part of the team designing and putting together a special exhibition dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain featuring both British and German aircraft from the era.

“Taking pride of place is the Spitfire. It’s the most iconic aircraft from the Battle of Britain. Our Spitfire is hugely important because it’s the world’s oldest surviving Spitfire,” says Tom.

The exhibition also includes the Hurricane which played an influential role in protecting Britain from the Luftwaffe during the summer of 1940 and the Messerschmitt, described as the Spitfire’s German counterpart.

Another part of Tom’s role is assessing artefacts and memorabilia that are offered to the museum for its collection by members of the public.

The museum has a storage facility in Stafford which contains the items that are not currently on on display but need to be preserved for research purposes.

They include a huge wardrobe of uniforms and flying clothing as well as physical items such as radios, engines and ceremonial items.

Tom says the team is always grateful for the offer of donations from the public and if they are unable to accept anything they will suggest alternative museums that may be able to add them to their collections instead.

“It can be anything from people clearing out attics and finding old photographs or service records belonging to their ancestors to donations of whole aircraft – I even had a whole boat offered.

The museum tells the story of the RAF

“You never know what’s going to turn up. We don’t have enough space to store everything and it’s quite common that people think we’re a Second World War or aviation museum but our remit is quite narrow – to tell the story of the RAF and its people.

“So we try to suggest alternatives if it’s not for us. We have to consider its condition and whether it would potentially danger anything in our collection.

“We don’t tend to accept duplicates as there is no need to have them as we treat our objects the best we can.

“It’s a careful consideration. We never like to say no but we do have to,” says Tom.

A couple of items that recently piqued his curiosity were two tug of war medals from the 1920s which were uncovered at the base’s School of Physical Training.

The sport has a long history within the service and is still played today by squads who compete in The Inter Services Tug of War Championships.

Tom is hoping to research the winners of the medals and share their experience as part of the RAF Stories digital history project.

“People know the museum for the aircraft but we want to tell the whole story of being in the RAF and sport is a big part of that.”

The museum is home to around 70 historic aircraft, including Britain’s V Bombers – the Vulcan, Victor and Valiant, military transport, missiles and memorabilia.

Balancing public access to the collection and conservation is another key part of Tom’s role which he says can be challenging at times.

“We get a lot of people asking for access to the aircraft. They are longer functional so we have to treat them as museum objects. We have a great deal of responsibility to preserve them for future generations.

Preserving the past for all

“We can be as careful as we can be but still cause deterioration. We do allow access to some of the aircraft during our Open Cockpit Weekend but some are just too fragile to allow access,” he tells Weekend.

Tom’s job also gives him the welcome opportunity to delve deeper into the past by carrying out research on different topics and documenting many aspects of the RAF’s history.

He is currently exploring the pivotal role the RAF Coastal Command played in strengthening the Allied efforts during the Second World War hunting and attacking U-boats off Britain’s shores and in the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s proving to be hugely rewarding. I feel privileged to be able to dedicate a significant amount of time to researching and learning,” says Tom, who lives in Shifnal.

“The important thing is to record that knowledge and make sure there is some kind of public outlet whether that’s through museum content, blogs or talks,” he adds.

Tom believes the museum is a special place because of its vast aircraft collection which includes some of the country’s rarest survivors and says The National Cold War Exhibition is on of its highlights.

“It’s good seeing visitors enjoying themselves and it’s really good that it’s all free,” he says.

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