Jordan's Royal Tank Museum.
Jordan’s Royal Tank Museum is a good collection of armored vehicles in a historical setting, but it falls short of a systemic approach and completely fails to address the bigger picture of war and its consequences.
In light of what is going on in Ukraine in early 2022, we fast-tracked the publishing of this article, as today's reality gives it sinister timeliness. We know it's a difficult topic, and we appreciate your openness in reading it.
How wars should be remembered
Let's think abstractly for a moment. You don't need to like war to be impressed by tanks. Just as you don't need to like flying to be impressed by planes, or you don’t need to like hydropower to be impressed by dams. These constructs represent the pinnacle of human ingenuity in their respective fields. And being a curious species, we want to learn more about them. The Royal Tank Museum does a fairly good job at presenting tanks to fans. But ...
... life is not abstract. Once we pass a certain age, we should not look at anything just in itself. We need to realize how it is connected to the world around it, and how it fits into a system. While it is not the job of a tank to make us think about war and peace, causalities and consequences, this should certainly be the job of a museum dedicated to tanks.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And those who do not learn from a sub-par museum are doomed to create sub-par services. So let's explore where the Royal Tank Museum does a good job, and how it could do a great job.
In architecture, a duck is a building type that projects its meaning in a literal way. The Tank Museum building is a good example, as it represents a turret, and looks as menacing as a real tank would. Definitely gives you a good idea about what to expect inside.
The museum sits on a large plot of land, with plenty of space around it. Sadly, this land is mostly empty, except some tanks scattered around (see below).
It is a good practice to place part of your exhibition outside of a museum, to entice passers-by, or give exploration opportunity to visitors before entry. The Royal Tank Museum recognized this, and placed a few tanks outside, which visitors can walk around. Sadly, these tanks do not come with a factsheet (see further below), nor with any other explanation. As a result, this good opportunity for immersion and context-setting ends up being nothing more than a storage facility.
Ticket counter & hall
Continuing the approach of the building, the benches inside the main hall are also very tank-like, resembling tracks. This is a nice continuation of the concept, even if a bit simplistic. Surprisingly, the ticket counter does not follow suit. While it could have been a turret or the insides of a tank, it’s simply a counter, albeit partly built of heavy-duty materials.
Wayfinding & concept
An interactive display nicely presents the visitor flow within the museum. It also points out that the museum primarily aims to be an educational experience about “events in Jordan, the region, and the world”. This is rather vague, as ‘events’ and ‘tanks’ are quite a leap from one another. This vagueness and ambiguity echoes throughout the exhibition. It tries to balance being a history lesson and a military exhibition, inescapably creating a patriotic undertone, which is not the best recipe for education.
The actual exhibit starts with a historical look-back at armors. We see a full-scale knight figure with horse, an excellent recreation of DaVinci’s “fighting vehicle”, along with an explanatory video, and a WW1 tank, with a vivid description about it. This sets the stage for a multi-sensory and immersive experience.
3. Big picture
True to the concept of the museum to be an education in history, the museum groups the exhibition not according to e.g. technological advancement, but by conflicts. This creates a “fly-through history” type of chronological setting, which is easy to navigate for visitors. Conflicts are confined to halls, and entering / exiting a space actually takes you to a different time, nicely connecting spatial and temporal aspects.
In some cases, the vehicles in the museum are simply exhibited – but in other cases, they are placed into an original environment, e.g. a desert, or an urban setting. This excellent practice helps make the impact of the tanks much more tangible. I would argue this is the best idea of the museum, as it shows the context of the usage, and shows the product as a means to a terrible end, rather than simply as a product of engineering.
Two halls in the museum get more specific and link simple exhibits with audiovisual demonstrations. The first shows one of Jordan’s recent conflicts and very specific stories from it. The other is a more generic “battle hall”, which aims to create an immersive experience with mimicked sounds and lights of explosions. Both halls take the tanks out of a showroom setting, and into a real-world scenario, which is a welcome change to the arms-length demonstrations of earlier parts of the exhibit.
Two important things were not even mentioned in the exhibit. One is tanks' high reliance on supply convoys, a.k.a. “logistic tails”, which are one of their main weaknesses. I would argue that the weakness of something certainly merits a place in a museum about it.
The other completely missing element is quite surprising. The museum generally looks at tanks as engineering feats. But it says nothing about their research and development efforts, or construction. Tanks are far from mass production, but they also can't be called artisanal. Around 100'000 were constructed from the most widely-produced tank, but you can get on a top-10 list with just about 10'000 units. Thus tank production is a really interesting topic and something that would have fit into the museum's remit.
Each tank within the museum came with a little factsheet, which is really handy to provide details about the vehicle in question. These include a short history, a battlefield-related photo, and a few data laid out with icons. These factsheets nicely balance textual and visual information and provide reading material in just the right length.
While a sawn-in-half tank was exhibited, there was practically no information about how a tank is built up, and what capabilities are needed for its operation. For such complex and unique machinery, this is really a huge miss. Many components that visitors see are strange to the amateur’s eye, and we are left guessing at what role these serve.
A small display included some samples of light ammunition but provided very little context. Clearly missing is the heavy ammunition that illustrates the destructive firepower of modern-day tanks.
Tanks are used by people, and as such, and as surprising as it is, don’t lack a human, sometimes even humorous touch. Insignia is a good example. Sadly, no context was provided as to what these insignia represent, where they originated, and how they are used. Leaving the visitor guessing, as in the case of subsystems.
The museum doesn't really end, rather it's just over. There is a play corner for World of Tanks (an online multiplayer strategy game), and a UN peacekeeper vehicle, with hardly any context. But there is no conclusion, no key takeaway, no final big element to put the crown on the Royal Tank Museum. This is a real miss.
The ending the museum deserves
While “armor” could be seen as the beginning of tanks (see above), the real beginning is actually "human conflict". To balance the primacy effect of the exhibition's start with the recency effect, it would have been great to close the exhibit with this original inception point. An interactive experience could show the many types of human conflict, how it has been with us throughout our history, how we arrived at the most peaceful time in history, and what we can do to maintain or even further improve – as we sadly know how fragile peace is.
Any tank fan will appreciate this museum as an exhibit. However, as its stated goal is education, it falls short of its intent. When educating about a topic, you shouldn’t only exhibit the given topic (in this case tanks), but also on its:
- Origins (the human conflict)
- Analysis (the parts of a tank, crew, and capabilities needed)
- Synthesis (how tanks fit into the larger human ecosystem)
- Impact (what tanks are capable of, both on a physical and sociological level)
- Future and criticism (what happens next, and why should we not have tanks)
And most importantly, a museum should not only answer questions but also raise questions in the visitor. While the Royal Tank Museum in Amman, Jordan exhibits tanks well, it only superficially shows their impact and origins, and it fails on all other fronts (pun intended).
When designing a museum, you shouldn’t only consider its role, but also the state of mind your visitors should leave with. Currently, this is geared towards "tanks are cool". The world would probably do better with a more somber take-away message, for example, that the future is not "better tanks", but rather "no more tanks".
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