Published: 23/06/2022 Written by: Nik Wyness
Of all the tanks in the Museum’s collection, none is more numerously represented than the Chieftain.
There are 23 Chieftains in total, covering a range of marks and variants. Yet, rightly or wrongly, the Chieftain isn’t one of those tanks that many would consider to be of such particular interest. So why do we have so many? And what do we plan to do with them all?
It’s a matter that was recently discussed by our Collection Committee as we continue to wrestle with the issue of space.
As I have written before, there are difficult decisions to be made in the months ahead as to how the collection should be pruned to enable collecting to continue in the future. The Chieftain conundrum illustrates the scale of the challenge.
Britain’s Main Battle Tank
The Chieftain tank was in many ways ahead of its time when it entered service as Britain’s Main Battle Tank in 1965. But despite a 30-year service life, the Chieftain never fired a shot in anger with British forces.
And it never earned the glowing reputation enjoyed by its predecessor the Centurion – which had also been a great export success. It was, however, a key component of the Cold War army and is certainly a crucial element in the story of both the Royal Armoured Corps and British tank development. But how many examples do we need to represent that history?
Displaying the Chieftain
Whilst the plan may have been to display each Chieftain variant in sequence, the reality is that this is never going to be a viable proposition.
Even if we had the display space, we would have to question the extent to which this would be of interest to an audience in comparison with other potential options.
So now, the Collection Committee must scrutinise each of the Chieftain tanks on the books to assess their ‘significance’: a qualitative assessment of the importance of a particular vehicle to The Tank Museum and the story it seeks to tell.
The outcome of this debate among our appointed body of experts, industry professionals and staff will undoubtedly see some of our Chieftains being released to other collections.
The Chieftain tank was being phased out of service at a similar time that the army was being reduced on the conclusion of the Cold War.
It was the first time that a major British Army vehicle was being withdrawn whilst The Tank Museum was operating as a ‘proper museum’ rather than a military reference collection.
This meant it was possible for the Museum to take its pick of variants from the surplus in a way that simply wasn’t possible when Shermans, Churchills, Centurions, etc, were withdrawn.
Museums have always had something of a ‘grab it while you can’ mentality, as history shows such opportunities rarely knock twice.
The opportunity wasn’t wasted. There were plenty available, and the scrap value was so low that a de-militarised, functioning Chieftain could be obtained for the equivalent of about £2,000 in today’s money. The rest would end up on the ranges as targets.
‘Significance’ is debated and judged on a variety factors.
If, like the Chieftain, there were several Marks with relatively minor visual differences, the Museum would prefer to display what was the most common mark in service.
The very first or very last of a type is also significant – but arguably less so than a vehicle that saw action in combat.
A tank crewed by a notable figure or medal winner is also highly desirable, but that vehicle should generally have been crewed by members of the Royal Armoured Corps.
Chieftain Bridge-layers and recovery tanks, crewed by Royal Engineers and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers respectively, will clearly be of less significance to The Tank Museum due to our RAC affiliation.
Prototypes can be of great importance, particularly if they contribute to the story of tank development, technology, or a broader national story. But “rareness” alone isn’t enough – significance depends on the contribution to a particular narrative.
Consideration of ‘significance’ in these terms is now as important for selecting vehicles to add to the collection as for reducing the number of duplicates.
No doubt it is a more formal and accountable process than it was 25 years ago when The Tank Museum ‘professionalised’ – adopting the national standards of contemporary museum practice.
Such standards will ensure that items of genuine significance will not be disposed of now, whilst providing appropriate guidance to inform our future collecting.