May 12, 2024

Museum Review - Bovington Tank Museum

Reader DampOctopus here, with a review of the Bovington Tank Museum, which I visited in April 2024. First, some context...

The tank was originally developed under wartime conditions, and the need for advantage on the battlefield naturally took precedence over preservation of the historical record. After the conclusion of WWI in 1918, Bovington Heath was littered with the debris of this development effort along with surplus tanks salvaged from the battlefields of France, abandoned to slowly rust. There they might have remained but for a visit in 1923 by Rudyard Kipling who suggested that they should be preserved for posterity. His suggestion prompted an effort in that direction over the following decades and today the Bovington Tank Museum is both the home of the earliest artifacts from the history of the tank and the largest collection of tanks in the world.

Achtung - Panzer!
Type: Tank Museum
Location: Bovington, UK
Rating: 5/5
Price: £21.50 (US$27) for normal adults


The curators of this museum have gone to considerable effort to display their collection to good advantage. Take the Trench Experience exhibition. It starts with a replica recruiting office and leads on through a recreation of a WWI trench system, with mannequins in period-appropriate costumes sheltering in dugouts and listening to background radio chatter. Then you turn a corner and see a soldier shouting in German and cowering away from a shape looming over the trench ... which turns out to be a Mark I heavy tank. Continue onwards and you see a series of examples illustrating the development of the classic rhomboidal British heavy tanks of WWI: the later Marks IV and V, a Mark IX armoured personnel carrier,1 a Mark V** with stretched chassis for crossing wider trenches and a Mark VIII of an Anglo-American design that didn't see service until after the armistice.

Of course, this exhibition wouldn't have the same impact if their collection were not unique and extensive in the first place. Their Mark I is the only surviving example of the world's first operational tank, and no where else will you find so many of its immediate descendants in the same room for a side-by-side comparison. Throughout the museum they have tanks parked in unexpected places, usually following a similar theme. When I went to the cafe I found myself next to a line-up from the Cold War: a Conqueror, Chieftain and Challenger 1, with more on the other side of the hall.

There was even a stray M24 Chaffee in the car park

Their most general exhibition is the Tank Story hall which charts the development of the tank from WWI to the late Cold War. There are thirty or so vehicles, starting with Little Willie. The exhibits don't run all the way to the present, presumably because the latest tanks are still in use: the most recent tank I saw was an engineering prototype of the in-service Challenger 2. The emphasis is on British tanks, which make up about half the exhibits, but there's also a range of French, German, and later American and Soviet tanks, depending on era.

Little Willie, the world's first prototype tank

The WWII exhibition is less structured, grouped roughly by theatre and era, to accommodate an even larger number of tanks. It maintains much the same standard of explanatory signage and intersperses the tanks with screens playing recordings of veterans and trophies they captured while serving in the Royal Armoured Corps. A corner of the hall is given over to a recreation of a wartime home, cinema and grocery store. This is the last major exhibition focusing on a single historical conflict, though there are smaller halls elsewhere dedicated to the Cold War and Afghanistan.

Representative view within the extensive WWII exhibition

I'm still not doing justice, though, to how nicely they've refined their visitor experience. There's a tank-themed playground, Lego table, dress-up area - something in every hall that will keep children entertained for a few minutes while you look at the exhibits. There are hourly guided tours, each focusing on a different period of tank development. There are walkways set up to allow you to see some exhibits from above, buttons to press for audio recordings, and mannequins in assorted costumes in every other corner.

Part of the Tank Story hall

The most recent exhibition is entitled "Tanks for the Memories"2 and nominally about the role of tanks in popular culture. I took this as an excuse for them to attract sponsorship from the World of Tanks video game, which is running on a bank of consoles in this hall, but they do also have 'Fury', the Sherman that played the lead role in the Brad Pitt film of the same name. The link with World of Tanks is also causing in-game memes to bleed through into real life. One of the more obscure items in the museum's collection is the FV4005, an early-Cold-War prototype built to counter Soviet heavy tanks,3 with only a single complete vehicle manufactured before it was abandoned. Then it was included in the game, to whose playerbase it is known (in polite company) as the 'Doombarn', and now a crowdfunded project is restoring the FV4005 to working order.

Sherman 'Fury'. The mud on the tracks is from it driving around outside two days previously.

This brings us neatly to the other side of the museum's activities: the restoration and operation of tanks. I went to this museum on their Tiger Day, one of several events at which they show off their working vehicles, and I was busy enough watching these that I had to go back another day to finish seeing the permanent exhibitions. The Tiger Day drew a huge crowd, with about a dozen vehicles doing a series of shows in their arena, including a Tiger starring in a re-enactment of the battle in which it was captured. They also opened up part of their conservation hall, providing a chance to see some of the vehicles not deemed significant enough for permanent display.

One problem with this museum is its location. It's a 40-minute walk from Wool, the closest village, which in turn is a 2.5-hour train journey or similar drive from central London. A bit long for a day trip. Easier, perhaps, to stay in the nearby towns of Poole or Bournemouth and drive from there.

If this museum is of interest to you, though, and you're in the UK, I'd say it's absolutely worth making the effort to get there, or to come back for an event if you've already been. Event tickets are more expensive than the base price listed above (I paid £25 for Tiger Day; tickets for the upcoming Tankfest are £35) but also count as a normal ticket for the next year.

1 This one is opened up so you can go inside it, and feels quite roomy until you read the sign saying that up to thirty infantrymen were expected to fit in there.

2 I apologise for sharing this one with you.

3 With a 7.2-inch gun, which I think technically makes it a heavy cruiser under the London Naval Treaty of 1930.


  1. May 12, 2024Tony Zbaraschuk said...

    So very worth it. I managed a day trip last time I was in England, and I would love to go back!

  2. May 12, 2024Ian Argent said...

    In re footnote 2: Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness

  3. May 13, 2024Matt bb said...

    Wow great review! If I ever get across the pond I will have to check it out. Sounds like a great museum. And very cool that they have the Fury tank there. I love that movie (despite some historical inaccuracies).

  4. May 13, 2024AlanL said...

    @Matt bb

    You definitely should. It's also just down the road from the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton (the Swordfish was inaccessible due to maintenance work when I was there ) and only a couple of hours from the fantastic Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: Victory, Mary Rose, Warrior and much, much more

  5. May 19, 2024doctorpat said...

    "The exhibits don’t run all the way to the present, presumably because the latest tanks are still in use: "

    I would imagine that current model tanks are much, much more available now than say pre-2022. Though not in working condition.

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