Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson talks to us about the stories behind the armour ahead of the new exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
Why is it important that the Royal Armouries tells the story behind the weapons and armour?
Weapons and armour are pieces of technology and on their own can be impersonal and difficult to make sense of. Mauser rifles and Vickers machine guns aren’t nice to look at, like say, a highly decorated flintlock pistol. They speak of industry and death. But they are hugely significant in terms of military history, social history, and had effects at the time that still impact our lives today. Our aim is to relate these tools of war to the people that actually designed, built, and used them, and we have a unique opportunity to do that.
Do you have any favourite objects or stories?
Although I specialise in firearms, my favourite object is probably a simple, hand-stitched cloth badge. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it actually looks like a pirate flag; we tend to associate piracy with fun and adventure, but this is far from that. It’s actually an unofficial design approved by the commander of the 117th Company, Machine Gun Corps. The crossed Vickers guns and royal crown of the Corps have been overlaid by a skull and crossbones design. We think of First World War soldiers as reluctant heroes, but this very personal object is a clear expression of this unit’s determination to do what they had been trained to do; to kill the enemy.
On the technology side, I was blown away by something called the ‘Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger’, which is as wacky as it sounds and totally unique. Some objects like this were way ahead of their time, and it’s fascinating to see the origins of modern weapons in these 100-year-old objects. We have also collected several medals for this exhibition, and one group in particular is there to tell the story of how new weapons changed the job of individual soldiers. But it’s hard not to be touched by the tragic story behind them when you read the letter from the soldier’s father, who had heard of the sinking of a hospital ship only one month from the end of the War, desperately asking if he’s OK. It’s this perfect museum triangle of real object, real history, and real person that I think really engages visitors and curators alike. It’s what we go into the job for, really.
How many objects will be displayed within the exhibition?
We have 153 individual objects on display, from a huge anti-tank rifle to a tiny silk pincushion! It’s a lot for a small space, making for an intense series of encounters between visitor and object, and giving some sense of the scale of mass production and of violence that characterised the First World War more than any other.
Briefly take us through the process of creating an exhibition of this kind.
We didn’t want to simply replace a few faded images and add a lick of paint to our existing display. We looked at what worked, but also at what newly acquired objects and ideas had emerged in the past 15 years, and re-thought the display from the ground up. It was clear that our strength lay in the more personal, individual weapons, helmets and early body armours.
The machine gun became the centrepiece of this story, bringing with it human stories but also being the only truly strategic firearm of the War. The first step was to create a long list of objects. Often exhibitions will start with ideas and then look for the most relevant objects to illustrate them, but with our specialist collection and expertise, we were able to tie the ideas to the objects at this early stage. However, we did have to recognise what gaps we had that we might need to fill with loans or new acquisitions. We were fortunate to acquire a large collection of medals, documents and personal possessions; all the types of objects that we do not routinely collect. Requests were also lodged with private lenders and our colleagues at the Imperial War Museum to round out the final displays.
Based on our initial theme ideas, my team and I began to research around them, to draft text, and with the help of our library, to search for images to illustrate the final stories. An external design company was engaged to develop a 3D design for the space. All of this brings together a visitor experience intended to evoke, but not attempt to recreate, the experience of those who encountered these objects under very different circumstances 100 years ago. Alongside all this, we also generated content for our new online feature, which will be part of our new Collections Management System and will provide another way to experience the objects and stories we’ve been working on.
Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers: the personal arms and armour of the First World War will open to the public in September 2014.
For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.