Museums are important in helping us connect with the past and with historical events – but not all museums are equal. Here, Shannon Bent explains why she thinks Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker in the UK plays a chilling but important role in teaching and reminding us about the Cold War – and the power of nuclear weapons.

This follows Shannon’s articles on Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie (here) and Topography of Terror (here).

Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. Source: Espresso Addict available  here .

Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. Source: Espresso Addict available here.

I’ve been studying history for quite a while now. I am only 22, yes, but if you count school and the years I spent doing exams, plus my nerdy extra-curricular research and reading, I’m fairly well versed in the general history of the world. I studied war specifically for three years and like to think I am continuing to each day with my work and personal reading. There isn’t much about war that scares me anymore, besides perhaps a gas mask which I do not wish my eyes to linger on for long; a fear born out of an episode of TV show Doctor Whoback in 2006. But aside from irrational fears made from fiction and exacerbated like a child’s head does, there aren’t exactly many elements of war left that give leave that sick, anxious feeling in my stomach. Many would call it desensitisation, and I am inclined to agree to an extent. Being exposed to images of the trenches, the Blitz, the Holocaust, time and time again, I guess I would have to agree the actual images start to lose an impact. Never the meaning though, and what it represents. The day I no longer find the thought of these events appalling is the day I want someone to fire me from the sector, because from that moment on I would consider myself useless.

 

Changing Warfare

However, in defence of the desensitisation argument, I would also argue that these elements of war perhaps do not scare me because I am aware they will never be repeated on a major scale. Never again will a world war be fought on soil, with soldiers dug in shelling each other across an empty space of land that belongs to no man. Never again will two countries bomb civilians in a tit for tat fashion to break morale. War doesn’t work like this anymore. The next major war won’t be fought with boots on the ground, with an occupying force in a country, or with the movements of heavy weaponry. The world faces a far worse fate than that. Total war has been replaced by the potential for total annihilation. Nuclear war is now the only warfare left on the cards, and the only element of conflict that terrifies me to my core. Why? It will be the most catastrophic thing the world has ever seen. Correction; the world won’t see it. Because there won’t be a world left, just by sheer nature of the implement.  

Now this may all seem very dramatic and like I am scare-mongering. And I’ll admit, to an extent I am. Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD theory, is the best thing to come from nuclear weapons and makes me 90% sure the world is safe for a little longer. This concept states that while two opposing countries both hold nuclear weaponry, they will never fire upon the other, for the second they do, they will also be fired upon themselves, therefore destroying themselves. The fear of what it will do to them and their own people prevents them from inflicting it upon others. Kind of scary, kind of neat. I suppose if the world must have nuclear weaponry then let us kept this mind set flowing amongst as many countries as possible. It will keep us safe for now. But there are constant reminders of how close we have already come to utter decimation.

 

Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker

There is a bunker, mostly in the middle of nowhere, near a town called Nantwich in the UK. This bunker is known as Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. And yeah, not so secret. But that’s the beauty of it. This bunker was to be one of a network across the UK that would have taken politicians and other groups of vital and important people into them upon the event of a nuclear attack. The bunker is mostly in the state it was left in; room after room of technical equipment, radios, med bays, shelters. It really is the perfect step into the past, specifically back to around 1962 and the event of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the moment the world held its breath and nuclear war was an inch away from actually happening. This event, in comparison to many parts of major warfare, is fairly recent history. My dad was five at the time. That isn’t all too long ago! My grandfather was part of the Royal Observer Corps, and his job was to effectively be waiting and looking out for the nuclear missiles that could come the way of Great Britain. Not that my dad knew it at the time, but the days of October 16thto October 28th1962 must have been some of the most stressful days of my granddad’s life. For him and hundreds of thousands of other people across the world, of course. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis began when Soviet Russia placed armed nuclear missiles onto the island of Cuba, then run by Fidel Castro. America’s answer to this was to blockade Cuba and demand for them to be removed. What followed was probably the most tense 13 days of President Kennedy’s life as he tried to negotiate these missiles off the island.

The range of the missiles covered nearly the entirety of America. And let’s face it, with the way nuclear weaponry works, even areas outside of range weren’t exactly safe! This was the closest that the world has ever been to full out nuclear war. If the US had been fired upon, it would have retaliated, and chances are the UK, due to treaties and agreements, would have followed suit. We would’ve been looking at full world destruction in seventeen minutes. That is the closest the world has come to full destruction. That we know of at least. I won’t go into all the conspiracy theories on the number of times something similar has happened since and we have never been told about it, because we would be here all day. But that’s exactly my point. The reason this topic and this type of warfare still has the ability to scare me so much is because it could still happen. We have some pretty mad and unpredictable leaders out there at the moment. Trump, Kim Jong-un, Putin. They’re erratic and power crazy; I feel like if they were bought the wrong type of eggs for their breakfast in the morning, by 11:30 they would’ve decided to launch a nuclear weapon at the country their chef was from, providing it wasn’t their own of course.

 

The Realities of Nuclear War

And this is what Hack Green so chillingly brings to life. From this museum you can begin to understand the conditions that people worked in - underground for days on end without seeing daylight. You squint when you walk out at first, after having spent at least four hours in a concrete box with no windows. This museum also provides a fantastic element of fear to the proceedings, without being ‘cheesy’ or ‘crude’. They have ghost walks, and these are rather popular, but sometimes you can’t blame a site for capitalising on its theme. The element of fear it brings to the everyday visitor, however, is far more subtle. In the background there are multiple warning alarms and sirens going off. Occasionally an announcement will sound for everyone to take shelter. The control rooms house radar and machines that ominously bleep. Geiger counters crackle threateningly in the distance. This exceedingly clever atmospherics is something that many museums are now beginning to adopt; adding in those noises that people would’ve heard every day they were there, bringing their world to yours. One room in the bunker is a sort of cinema room, and in here they show the BBC’s Threadsfrom 1984. This is the definition of chilling; a film set during the nuclear apocalypse of Great Britain and details what would happen to the population. I would highly recommend checking it out (Amazon USAmazon UK)

Witnessing the implications of what these people were working on through visuals only adds to the tension of the place. Perhaps one of the key aspects of the bunker is the bomb shelter, a room with the full sirens and noises of lighter bombing. However, every few minutes they simulate the noise of the nuclear bomb falling. This near as damn stops your heart. Obviously, the noise level is replicated to a safe point, (no ear drums are hurt in the duration of the simulation) but that only makes you more aware of the earth-shattering noise that would have been experienced. It really gives you a jolt. You then step back out, and in perfect curation style, you continue your journey around the museum to discover what would have happened post-bomb. This genius way of subtly taking the visitor around a timeline as if you were a member of the workforce in the bunker having to combat the issues faced gives a fantastic immersive experience. The museum is everything a museum should be; giving you a reality check about your own life as you experience, just for a moment, someone else’s. 

 

Conclusion

I have to admit, I left with a rather sick feeling in my stomach. It was a hot day and the light was blinding as we walked out. I got in the car and looked back at the imposing yet unassuming structure of the bunker and thought ‘one day everything I’ve just seen from history could be a reality’. Einstein once said, in the perfect eloquence he always had; ‘I do not know with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.’ Hack Green beautifully (perhaps a bad choice of adjective, but you follow my point) presents what will happen before those sticks and stones. It gives a brilliantly immersive reality to those that wish to understand just how much of a knife edge we once sat on, and continue to, in my opinion. Take a deep breath as you enter though; the inspired curation and presentation of this museum serves as a stark reminder of the power we hold against each other. Hack Green in essence masters what science has still failed to achieve; time travel. But perhaps not just the past, maybe the future too.

 

What do you think of the article? Have you visited any nuclear bunkers? Let us know below.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Museums are important in helping us connect with the past and with historical events – but not all museums are equal. Here, Shannon Bent explains why she thinks Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum, a museum that considers the dark past of the Nazi regime, is an excellent museum.

Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum. Remains of the Berlin Wall are at the top of the picture. Source: Adam Carr, available  here .

Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum. Remains of the Berlin Wall are at the top of the picture. Source: Adam Carr, available here.

In my previous article posted here on ‘History is Now’ (here) I spoke about Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known tourist destination in Berlin. I talked about this over-commercialised site, and how completely insensitive and underwhelming I felt the ‘attraction’ was. Funnily enough, a few days ago and around a month after I wrote this article, my Dad handed me a page from the British Daily Mailnewspaper with the headline ‘Mona Lisa? It’s a bit rubbish’. It was a small section on the page and detailed the results of a survey done by the airline ‘easyJet’ about what the most desirable tourist destinations to visit in Europe were. While the Mona Lisa was named the most disappointing, Checkpoint Charlie came in at a close second with 84% of 2,000 Britons polled saying they disliked the site. At the risk of being smug, or using the phrase ‘called it’, I’m hardly surprised. It does, however, further the idea that this site is rather useless at its intention and doesn’t exactly educate or even interest many visitors. I was actually rather pleased to read this; at least quite a few other people actually agree with me and I’m not just overreacting!  

Now we’ve seen an instance of failure in the museum sector, perhaps I can offer a view and recommendation for a museum I feel could not be more opposite to the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Situated perhaps less than a five-minute walk apart, this museum to me is a symbol of the right way to do it; an example of how to educate accurately and effectively on a sensitive subject while remaining interesting and respectful: The Topography of Terror.

 

The Topography of Terror Museum

The building is initially imposing, yet it is not obvious as to what it contains. Situated next to a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, and on the site of the SS central command, this simply curated museum takes the visitors through the chronology of the reign of terror that the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security lead over the people of Germany and beyond during the Second World War. With room for temporary and special exhibitions within the space that remain within the general theme of the museum, this site doesn’t hide anything. The site that it is on also provokes thought. What better way to keep the memory of the horrors inflicted alive than by placing them in a building sat on the area where the headquarters of the main perpetrators once resided. There is something fairly poetic and thought-provoking about this. Furthermore, with the remains of a piece of the Berlin Wall encompassed into the site that you can walk along and see the remnants of the graffiti from those that lived through it, it further serves as a reminder of the humanity caught up in war, and seeks to remind you that you are learning about individual and real people who had to face the horrors that presented themselves to them during both the Second World War and the Cold War. The area is alive with history, and therefore is the perfect place to keep history alive in. 

When you first enter the Topography of Terror, I would argue that most would be struck with the expanse of space, cleanliness and I should think some would argue sparsity of the place. The museum is free, something that I always appreciate. So, there is no funnelling towards a desk where they’ll ask for your money and try and sell you an overpriced guide book on top of your tickets. Furthermore, and thankfully, there is no gift shop. I hardly think it would be appropriate to place the SS symbol on a pencil or a tote bag to sell at the end of your visit, so a huge well done to the person that manages to keep the retail and commercialisation issue away. Therefore, upon entrance you are free to roam wherever you wish to begin. Despite this, the fantastic curation of the museum lends itself to naturally leading you in a chronological order through the build up to the Nazi regime and through the Second World War.

 

The Curation

I mentioned that it is the fantastic curation that pulls you into a kind of ‘one-way system’ concept around the room, yet the curation is simple. The entire concept is just boards hung from the ceiling, with one main introductory board per section, numbered in order to help the flow. As you can see, it pulls you around each corner and makes you curious for the next board, in a rather morbid way perhaps. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. Just because these subjects are some of the darkest and bloodiest points in history doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Besides, if people are interested, or if it is interesting to them then they are learning about the topic. Ultimately, isn’t this the aim of museums such as the Topography of Terror? Education of these subjects so they shall never be repeated again is of course the main remit of the museum. Consequently, I see no issue with a visitor of this museum finding the content of interest, and with a want to learn more around each information board. 

The phrase ‘it pulls no punches’ may be a little insensitive on this subject, but also fairly appropriate. Perhaps one of my favourite things about this museum is it does not seek to hide the facts, or veil them in mystery and inaccuracy. The facts, the stats, the numbers and the photos are clear for everyone to see. It perhaps for some is an overload of information and writing; if you aren’t already interested in the topic then perhaps this isn’t the museum for you. Certainly, it isn’t a museum to bring younger children. They would find it pretty boring, with no interaction or engagement tailored to them. But in my opinion, this isn’t poor planning or curation on the museum’s part. They knew their target audience, and they knew what information they were aiming at who, and in my opinion they have pulled this off very well. The text is simple and fairly broken up into smaller paragraphs, interspersed with many photos of varied sizes. It gives the exhibition variety, but also makes it an information packed display which is of course the overall aim.

 

The Meaning of the Museum

The reason I wanted to speak about this museum though, is because of its greater meaning. It has been created by the German people in full knowledge of the history of the site that it is sat on, and it is a symbol that they are not afraid of the truth. While a comical concept, there was once a thought of ‘don’t mention the war’ when it came to the countries that were involved. However, this museum shows that education and information does not have to be hidden from its place of origin and removes the concept of guilt or blame and simply seeks to teach so we can learn from mistakes. It baffles me that there was once a thought that Germany should not be open about the crimes that occurred during the Second World War. After all, and I think I can be accurate and agreed with when I say this, the Nazi regime and the extreme SS that came from it were not truly representative of the country or the majority of its people at the time. These days, while neo-Nazism does exist in various countries and that is a terrifying thought, the viewpoint that caused the atrocities that the Topography of Terror details are reserved luckily to a small section of people. This museum proves that the past doesn’t have to be hidden, or glossed over and more to the point can in fact be shown in greater detail to educate as many people as possible. 

This museum, and certainly this mindset, is a triumph. I can only hope that this continues and spreads wider. The Topography of Terror achieves what all museums should set out to do; clear and accurate information, accessible to as many people as possible and presented in an intriguing and unique way. Even if the subject matter is difficult and sensitive, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, usually the total opposite. It is these subjects that need to be understood the most, by as many people as possible. Its museums like this one that ensure that it can be understood, so it is never repeated in history again. 

 

I would highly recommend this museum. If you are interested, here is the website and if you are in the area, I would urge you to visit. Let’s keep the knowledge of topics like this and the museums that tell the stories as widely known as possible. Link here.

 

I hope you can come along with me on this exploration. Don’t hesitate to comment, feedback, and you could even email me for a chat about all this on s.k.bent@hotmail.co.uk. I would really love people to get involved in this.

Museums are important in helping us connect with the past and with historical events – but not all museums are equal. Here, Shannon Bent explains why she loves museums and why she was less than pleased while visiting the famous Cold War crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie, in Berlin.

Image of Checkpoint Charlie in 2015, provided by and shown with the permission of Shannon Bent.

Image of Checkpoint Charlie in 2015, provided by and shown with the permission of Shannon Bent.

The importance of museums

I will hold my hands up and admit that I am a museum nerd. It may seem a little niche and uninteresting, but I love museums. From a very early age, my parents took me to historical sites, castles, battlefields and museums. My love must have begun there. Not only was I learning (yes, I am that child that loved to learn), but I was also in a place where it was totally acceptable to enjoy learning what was around you. More than that, you were learning in a totally different way to sitting in a classroom being talked at for hours on end. I was interacting, I was playing with objects, I was touching things were hundreds of years old and I learning how they worked. This bought a huge amount of joy to me as a child, and thankfully it never wore off. Still to this day, I step into a museum and I feel at peace. It feels familiar, it feels safe and it feels homely. If you, like me, just love to be around knowledge and learning, you too will have a place which evokes the same kind of emotions. 

As I became older and began visiting the museums I had loved as a child in my adult years, it started to become clearer to me why these places were so important to me. They continued education and knowledge in such a way that you don’t realise you are learning. Yet days later you are still thinking about and remembering something you read or did in a museum. It then became my mission to try and get myself into these environments on a day-to-day basis and perhaps create this kind of feeling for another that could then fall in love with museums in the way I once had. 

Because of my love for these places, presenting themselves in old buildings, new buildings, caves, tunnels, rooftops and walls, wherever I go I seek out a museum. I am lucky enough to have the people closest to me sharing similar interests (or at least putting up with my interest) and so any holiday, day out or trip away can involve finding a new museum to explore. At the end of last year I travelled to Berlin. I don’t recall a day I didn’t visit a historical site or museum. It was there that I began thinking about this; a museum’s role in remembrance and commemoration, and how some places do it better than others. Yes, I can be critical of museums too!

 

Visiting Berlin

 

The first time I visited Berlin, I was eighteen years old. I was heading to university two months later still with a huge passion and love for history. The trip was with school; a bunch of us from history class and our favourite teachers. It was July and baking hot. On our school-arranged itinerary was the Checkpoint Charlie museum. I was excited and fascinated with this museum, having not had a chance in school to study the Cold War and was fuelled by my own interest and research. 

Checkpoint Charlie was, as you perhaps could guess, a checkpoint in central Berlin that during the Cold War when Germany was cut in two, allowed passing between the two sectors. West Germany, or the FRG, was controlled by the British, Americans and French. East Germany, the GDR, was controlled by the Soviet Union. This line, a crack through the country and indeed through the world, represented two very separate lives for the people that were zoned into these sectors. Checkpoint Charlie was a break in the physical wall that had been put up from August 13, 1961, and became a symbol of separation during the Cold War. After the wall came down in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany, Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction. 

You will see Checkpoint Charlie featured in many Cold War films, novels, and historical articles. It is a focal point, and an incredibly important site in history. I remember being upstairs in the Checkpoint Charlie museum, and from one of the windows you could look down onto the street and see the checkpoint. It remains as it was; the signs indicating the various sectors, the booth which housed the patrolling soldiers, it is all still standing. A snapshot of history preserved as it once was, hopefully forever, to remind people what happens when you build walls. I looked for a while, because to me it was captivating. Then I noticed there were ‘soldiers’ at the checkpoint. I say it like that, ‘soldiers’, because it was clear they were reproduction uniforms with an attempt to be historically accurate and failing pretty badly. Even me, aged eighteen, could see that it wasn’t right. Not only that, but they weren’t saluting correctly for the country that they were supposedly a soldier of. I remember pointing this out to my classmates, and my teacher, who all laughed along with me at how absurd the entire scene was. 

It clearly stuck in my head though, as I remember saying I wasn’t too bothered about seeing Checkpoint Charlie again as I found it over-commercialised and unnecessary. It was probably then, some five years later, that I began to consider what this commercialisation of such an important historical site actually meant for the preservation of the memory.

Image of Checkpoint Charlie in 2015, provided by and shown with the permission of Shannon Bent.

Image of Checkpoint Charlie in 2015, provided by and shown with the permission of Shannon Bent.

Presenting History as it was

I am what I guess you could call a ‘historical purist’ or ‘historical prescriptivist’. Basically, I believe in presenting historical fact in the purest form. Present it how you wish, in as many different forms as you wish; writing, TV, movies, plays, exhibitions, podcasts, the world is your oyster. Just make it accurate. None of this embellishment for dramatic effect. No need to change the facts to make it interesting. Trust me, present it right and the history will speak for itself. Now apply this logic to Checkpoint Charlie. You have the original signs each side of the street, making it clear to everyone standing there just how close capitalism and communism lived for the best part of 29 years. You have the booth where the soldiers would have stood, hour after hour, day after day, in freezing Berlin winters, patrolling a border that they themselves were probably affected by. Throw in a few photos of the wall, the roadblocks, the tanks and place them around they booth with a few well-written info plaques and hey presto, you have yourself a thought provoking, accurate historical site. You don’t need people dressed up, charging for tourists to have photos with them. You don’t need the visual of dressed up soldiers at all. 

Now you may be thinking ‘chill out. It’s just a bit of harmless tourist fun’. And yes, in a way it is. But here’s the way I look at it. Those soldiers they are impersonating were once real people, with real lives. In fact, the likelihood is they are still around today, perhaps even in that city. They had family, friends, lovers and enemies. They lived and breathed that city, that conflict, right off the back of the biggest war the world had ever seen. The wall went up practically overnight and the checkpoint followed. The men that had to work at that checkpoint perhaps lost family the other side of the wall or had to leave their life long friends behind. If you want to think about it in a darker manner, those soldiers being impersonated perhaps had to stop or even shoot people that were attempting to escape through the checkpoint, whether they agreed with the ethics of the wall or not. Some 136 people died between the years of 1961 and 1989 at the Berlin Wall. There are not clear numbers of how many of them were at the checkpoint in question. But chances are those soldiers had to perform violent acts that morally they were not at peace with. Do you think it is morally correct for people to then pretend to be these soldiers? I doubt it would sit well with the actors if they thought about it, and it would certainly baffle those that lived through the iron curtain.

 

Maybe that is more the point I am making. Perhaps I’m getting too hung up on the smaller intricacies of the topic. My overall point is this; people lived through the thing that is now being (badly, may I add) impersonated for money. I feel the concept to be a little weird and overall needless. There are many fantastic ways of presenting facts, of making history come to life that is accurate and respectful. And I am in no way against visual representation. There are some really good TV series and films that are as accurate as possible, for example Darkest HourDunkirk, and the absolute masterpiece that was Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. Similarly, I have seen re-enactments, and what I believe is called in the business ‘costumed interpreters’ that have fantastic reproduction uniforms and costumes that provide a deeper and more visually impactful experience for the visitor. But it is done more tastefully, and with a far greater respect for the historical significance.

 

Recent History

There is also the question of this with regards to recent history. My parents vividly remember when the Berlin wall fell. I was born eight years later. My mum always says how when she was in school in the 1970s they didn’t teach history on the Second World War because it was too fresh and recent to make it a historical subject. While I don’t agree with that wholly, and do believe that it should be taught no matter how recent, there is a lot to be said for the way in which the topic is presented and what is respectable when there are still people living in that city that lived through a time when Checkpoint Charlie was actually operational. 

I do get angry when I think about all of this in context. When I was in Berlin last November, we were killing time before heading for food, and I said to my boyfriend ‘lets walk past Checkpoint Charlie, just so I can glare at it’. The people that are stood taking photos with the soldiers and instagramming it are entirely missing the point of, well, everything. It isn’t a place of remembrance and commemoration. To them, it’s a ‘how many likes can I get’ challenge, and the significance of the place goes right over so many people’s heads because it isn’t being presented in the right way. To me, it is beyond disrespectful. I guess you can only hope for change in the future. 

As I’m sure you can tell, this is a topic that I am very passionate about. Not just Checkpoint Charlie, but the overall controversial topic of how to present a museum, the commercial aspects of public history, and what is to be done when the topic in hand is sensitive. This series will seek to explore these different aspects of museum and heritage sites, using not only my knowledge but definitely my opinion, from the countless visits I have done to numerous places. Don’t worry, the whole thing won’t be me ranting consistently. I have some positive things to say too! I hope together we can explore and have a general discussion about this. If you love museums too, this is the place to be!

 

I hope you can come along with me on this exploration. Don’t hesitate to comment, feedback, and you could even email me for a chat about all this on s.k.bent@hotmail.co.uk. I would really love people to get involved in this. After all, history and museums are for us all! So don’t be shy! History is cool, and history is now. 

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones