Brooklands Museum: Designing an aircraft factory exhibition inside a restored WWII hangar

By Adrian Murphy. Main Image: Schoolchildren experience the factory interactives inside the Tinsmiths’ Shop at Brooklands Museum's Aircraft Factory. Photograph by Andrew Lee, RAA

The design of the new aircraft factory exhibition at Brooklands Museum has created a totally immersive experience that brings together all the elements of building an aircraft in a hands-on way under one roof

Since November 2017, visitors to Brooklands, the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation, have been able to enter a restored Second World War hangar and experience what it would have been like to work inside an aircraft factory.

The aircraft factory exhibition was part of the larger HLF-funded £8.4m Brooklands Aircraft Factory and Race Track Revival project to restore the relocatable Bellman Hangar and move it from its location on the finishing straight of the racetrack, restore the track for events and also build a Flight Shed where aeroplanes could be wheeled out onto the track for demonstrations.

Planning for the project began in 2007 and it was decided early on that the aircraft factory exhibition inside the Bellman Hangar would be designed to connect visitors to the site’s extraordinary history and people with an immersive approach to the displaying and interpretation of objects in the collection.

The Bellman Hangar was one of many designed by Norman Bellman in the late ‘30s to provide the RAF with a relocatable structure that they could presumably move across Europe. Brooklands’ own Bellman hangar was erected in November 1940 and in the height of the Battle of Britain, the RAF’s most important fighter, the Hawker Hurricane was built there. Over the 80 years up until its closure in 1989, there was an aircraft factory working on the site with more than 18,800 aeroplanes completed and flown out of Brooklands. At its peak Brooklands employed 14,000 workers.

The restored Grade II Listed Bellman Hangar where the immersive Aircraft Factory is housed

And as Allan Winn, who retired earlier this year as director and CEO after 15 years at Brooklands, put it: “What we have done is build a monument, a recognition of what those people did.”

Now visitors get to experience the different processes those workers would have completed in order to build the aeroplanes needed for the war effort, for example, in a mock-up factory.

“It’s a Grade II listed tin shed because of its significance of being the only surviving aircraft manufacturing building on the Brooklands site and to this day more aeroplanes have been completed and had their first flight from Brooklands than any other site in Europe,” says Winn. “This is the last building were that activity took place.”

He says the big thing that became apparent at the planning stage was that there was nowhere else that was celebrating the history of aircraft manufacture: “And it was also clear to us that within the aerospace industry in the UK, which is still hugely important to the British economy, there was nowhere where a normal member of the public could go and see aeroplanes being built.”

Now that has all being changed and on the ground floor of the hangar, which is referred to as the shop floor, is a central production line running diagonally through the building with various departments that would have made the aircraft on display around them such as a Wellington Bomber. The Wellington was rescued from the bottom of Loch Ness in 1985 and restored by some of the museum’s 800 volunteers, many of whom had careers Brooklands. The exhibition now connects the visitors to the manufacturing of aircraft that actually happened on the site and also encourages them to understand and empathise with the workers and their incredible feats by having a go at the hands-on elements.

The restored Wellington Bomber is a prominent feature in the Aircraft Factory

Designing the exhibition

“In moving the hangar we had a unique opportunity to start from scratch and to look at the best way we could interpret the history, talk about the engineering and the people, and use that to inspire kids and the whole audience through STEM,” says curator, Andrew Lewis. “The Bellman Hangar is a Grade II listed building and imagined as the Brooklands aircraft factory, so it isn’t just an exhibition, it is a fully immersive hands-on experience in as close to a factory setting as we could get.”

To accomplish that industrial environment, the design of the hangar floor was set out as an industrial setting with production lines created with industrial floor markings. In the centre is the assembly line where all the different parts of the aircraft come together to form the final completed unit.

Surrounding the assembly line are independent lines that demonstrate the various elements that make up an aircraft such as the wings, fuselages and engines. So, it breaks the aircraft down into components. And within those sections it is broken down further into shops, which are independent departments that demonstrate different processes. There is a carpenter’s shop, which demonstrates the wood-making elements so important in early 20th century planes, a tinsmith’s department, which talks about making things out of sheet metal, a fabric department also important throughout the last century, a propeller shop, which demonstrates how propellers were carved, a machine shop, which shows how workers would have machined metal from solid and a composites shop to bring the production processes up to the modern day.

Former CEO Allan Winn shows Prince Michael of Kent around the Aircraft Factory

Within those shops there are two different sections, one is historic benches that were actually used at the aircraft factory to build aeroplanes that now display original objects from the Brooklands collection. And the second, on the opposite side, is a newer modern-built bench, which contains interactives. In this case every interactive on the ground floor of the hangar is hands-on and mechanical – there isn’t a single touch screen among them.

“It’s about getting the visitor to try techniques for themselves,” says Lewis. “We have, for example, in the propeller shop ways of shaping wood either unsupervised with sandpaper or if there’s a volunteer steward available we can take a spokeshave and actually carve wood. In the tinsmith’s shop, which is actually the most popular section visitors can take two pieces of sheet metal, which are first rolled through rollers and folded in a press break and then riveted together with a riveting machine. It is specially designed so people can do it themselves and make a metal aeroplane, which they can then keep as a product they’ve actually made. It’s about the people who made these fantastic aeroplanes and achieved great things at Brooklands being ordinary people. It’s reminding people that anyone can achieve these things if they just have a go and try.”

When visitors arrive they can collect a clocking-in card and work coat and clock into their shift on the factory floor and as they go round each of the shops they gain a stamp on their card, which mirrors the experience of apprentices.

The entrance to the Aircraft Factory has clocking in cards and lockers with work coats that visitors can wear throughout their visit

Throughout, visitors will see the duality of both history and a slightly more modern edge, says Lewis, with all the structures in the hangar floor for instance being made out of scaffolding tube, which gives it a real industrial feel but also looks very fresh and modern in terms of design.  There are lots of exhibition displays between the shops and people can wonder around the aircraft into the shops as there is no set route. There is also a soundscape with factory noises, which further creates that working environment.

“I think the exhibition is trying to do something different,” he says. “There are so many museums you can go to these days where there can be a kind of feeling of déjà vu. The aircraft factory as we designed it is something completely unique. Nowhere else attempts to create that factory environment in such an immersive, hands-on way. To design an exhibition means finding your own identity and really embracing that and making something that is unique to your museum or historic site.”

As well as the shop floor there is a design office in a specially built mezzanine floor. The design office talks specifically about designing aircraft. This is where the touchscreens come in, which Lewis says are the most effective way of having interactives that tell people about the different decisions designers have to make when designing an aeroplane. These include multi-choice games where people can attempt to design Concorde or a 1950s airliner and there are challenges to complete where visitors are asked to choose different aircraft components to put together and achieve the ideal result.

“One of the key things from our point of view was that internally as a museum the exhibition already had a really strong identity before we even started to going out looking for exhibition designers and other contractors to work with,” says Lewis. “So we knew how we wanted it to be and when we came to tender for exhibition designs, Ralph Appelbaum Associates came to us with proposals that told us they instantly knew what we wanted and understood Brooklands and how it should work. I think that’s why we have ended up with such a great end product.”

Schoolchildren try out the interactive elements of the wings shop

The aircraft factory exhibition is complemented by a new purpose-built Flight Shed, which has exhibition space upstairs and on the ground floor a workshop where Brooklands runs courses to teach people about aviation skills to maintain historic aircraft. This training is initially catered to its own volunteers to conserve the collections better, but eventually it will be expanded to inspire the next generation of engineers and even to help other museums conserve their aeroplanes.

Next door to that is an archive store and a reading room, both of which will improve access to the collection for researchers or other interested visitors. “It’s about the whole museum changing direction and stepping onto the next level and inspiring the next generation in many ways in particularly through the exhibition. The whole point about Brooklands is it all happened here, and we talk about the site and what people did here and that’s what the hangar project has done for us as well, it’s said we are not Brooklands Motor Museum, we’re not Brooklands Aviation Museum, we are the museum of Brooklands.”

Visitor figures have increased 15 per cent over previous periods since the Aircraft Factory and Flight Shed opened and in 2017 the museum welcomed a record 186,459 visitors. Over the next five years the museum hopes to increase that to 250,000.

The exhibition cost £1.319m and was made possible through a £5.5m HLF grant as well as funds from Art Council England, Surrey County Council, LIBOR banking fines, charitable trusts, foundations and individuals.

This project has been shortlisted in the Permanent Exhibition category at the Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence, with the winners being announced at a ceremony on 16 May.