Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – Telling the story…

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.

 Jonathan Ferguson (curator of firearms), test firing a Vickers Mk.II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK, 29th March, 2014  © Royal Armouries


Jonathan Ferguson (Curator of Firearms), test firing a Vickers Mk.II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK, 29th March, 2014 © Royal Armouries

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.

Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger © Royal Armouries

Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier grenade launcher © Royal Armouries

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.

The Secrets of the Tower of London Foreshore…

Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna tells us why you should join her at the Archaeology Weekend to discover the secrets of the Tower of London foreshore.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Last year I wrote a blog discussing the start of a pilot volunteer project to look at a collection of foreshore finds. These finds were the result of an excavation of the Tower of London foreshore in September 1986.

With the help of four volunteers and advice from the Museum of London Archaeology Centre we have successfully repackaged and catalogued over 700 small finds from this dig. These objects included gun furniture, pike tips, and musket balls, demonstrating the development and manufacture of weapons on the site.

These finds are important as they provide physical evidence of the Office of Ordnance’s workshops on the Tower of London wharf, and also helped to prove that the Tower foreshore is an important archaeological site.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Our volunteers had experience of working on archaeological collections with the Museum of London, and some had also worked with the Thames Discovery Programme, so were familiar with foreshore archaeology. This proved helpful for handling and repacking the finds. We were able to give the volunteers greater insight into the development of weaponry and the history of the Tower in relation to the Office of Ordnance, an important government department until it was dissolved in 1853.

To celebrate the volunteer project’s success, I will be at the Tower of London Archaeological weekend on 19 and 20 July with a couple of the volunteers. We will have a few of the important objects relating to the Ordnance workshops and a chance for visitors to make their own Ordnance badges. If you’re around please come and say hello, there will be lots of stalls and a chance for a limited number of people to explore the foreshore.

Read Kathleen’s previous blog The Forgotten Dig…

Find out more about the Tower of London Archaeology weekend.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – An introduction…

Last week we announced our plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, with new exhibitions, a series of talks and seminars, online content and events across Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London.

In the run up to and during the centenary programme, we will post a series of blogs covering all aspects of the programme.

Ahead of the opening of the new exhibition in Leeds Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – the personal arms and armour of the First World War – we spoke to Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson…

What themes are included within the exhibition?
We start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; many heads of state in 1914 owned an early form of bullet-proof vest made of silk and other textiles. We’ve had one recreated and tested it, and you can see the results displayed along with the type of pistol used to kill the Archduke and essentially the start of the First World War.

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Moving into the main space, we tell the story of the attempts to design the perfect sword; and the consequences for cavalrymen who faced machine guns and barbed wire on the Western Front. We tell the story of Frank Elms, who started the war as a cavalry trooper, and ended it as a highly trained machine gunner. Other cavalry actually did fight successfully on horseback. We then show the parallel story of the infantry rifle and bayonet; thought to be key to victory by many at the start of the war. In the event, machine guns and artillery became the important weapons, but to the individual soldier of any side, his rifle and bayonet were his best friend. The French even gave their bayonet a girl’s name!

As mobile warfare proved impossible and trench warfare took over, everyone involved began to look for ways to break through and push back the enemy. The machine gun forms the core of the exhibition, as visitors encounter some of the biggest killers of the war as they pass through the space. Personalising this theme is the forgotten story of the men of the Machine Gun Corps, set up as an elite unit to make best use of the famous Vickers gun. We then have a series of cases showing the wealth of responses to the challenge of trench warfare. Medieval style weapons and armour made a comeback, existing weapons were adapted and used in different ways (for example, in the air), and surprisingly modern weapons were invented from scratch.

Finally, we see how faith placed in weapons technology to actually end war forever (the so-called ‘War to End All Wars’) was misplaced, and how it in fact enabled a century of conflict whose effects are still with us today. Not many people realise that the phrase ‘First World War’ was coined during the war itself, when people realised that they now had the means to kill each other more effectively than ever before. The technology of 1880 – 1918, like all technology, is neutral; it doesn’t care how it’s used. It was used to start the war, it caused the hell of trench warfare and took millions of lives, but then went on to end that hell and actually save lives. Finally, it paved the way for the Second World War, the Cold War, and future wars. The objects are intrinsically interesting, but what makes them truly relevant and interesting are the personal stories. You’ll see plenty of both in this exhibition.

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

What are visitors going to learn from the exhibition?
I think people will be surprised at how advanced some of the thinking was, and that both before and during the war, there were constant attempts to innovate and to put the right equipment in to the soldiers’ hands. However, the right tactics to make best use of it could only be learned on the battlefield. That meant that no amount of ingenuity or innovation could prevent a horrific human cost and a legacy that still echoes today.

Why is the exhibition unique?
Our museum is the only one in the country that focuses exclusively on arms and armour; it’s what we do best. Our collection was already world-class in 2005, but in that year we also received the entire Ministry of Defence ‘Pattern Room’ collection of 19th-20th century firearms. This allowed us to do far more than we could back in 1996 when the existing display was installed. So the unique aspect here is that we lead with the personal weapons and armour, and then give them context by linking back to the real people who made them, held them and used them in anger. We do that in ways people will be familiar with; stories, and a wealth of imagery, and oral history recordings but we have also filmed a range of original weapons being fired, including high-speed camera footage of bullets striking forensic ballistic soap. We explore what these objects were capable of and what people’s opinions and feelings about them were. Instead of using them simply as illustrations in a generic narrative of the War, we make the interaction of objects and people with the battlefield the focus of the exhibition.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.

And the Winner is…

To coincide with the Inspired by… Heraldry exhibition currently on display at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, we asked our visitors to create their own designs. The winning piece would then be displayed alongside the work of the Yorkshire Heraldry Society.

The competition winner was Emma Horsfield  – we spoke to her about the inspiration behind her design.

IMG_3475-Emma-Horsfield---1

What was your motivation for entering the competition?
I decided to enter the competition as history is a great interest of mine and heraldry is one aspect of that which l thought would be interesting to learn about.  Entering the competition gave me the opportunity to learn something new and try out a new style of art, which was very appealing to me.

What was the inspiration behind your design?
Having recently joined the Pontefract Magna Carta Group, which was founded to prepare for the 800th Anniversary celebrations (in 2015), l thought that would be the ideal subject to pursue.  I decided to recreate the 25 shields of the Barons who summoned King John in 1215 to seal the Magna Carta document within my design, as this would bring unity to these facets of heraldry whilst also being a unique piece of work.  I also thought that, because of the approaching anniversary, it would be a subject which would be within the public domain.

Is this the first time you have created heraldry?
Yes it is, in fact I knew nothing about heraldry before entering the competition.  However, when l conducted some research on the subject, I was surprised to learn how complicated it is.

What did you enjoy most about creating it?
I enjoy creating art with lots of colour and contrast and it was this aspect, and the fact that it was historically based, which l enjoyed most.  I had been painting some historical scenes and events in acrylics and oils, and also designing my own medieval style manuscripts before the competition, so this was an interesting extension to this work.

How will it feel to have your work displayed in a national museum?
I am extremely pleased to be displaying my work in a National Museum, especially so because so many people will get to see and appreciate it and that is what pleases me most.  I would also hope it may contribute towards the public trying to learn a little bit about the Magna Carta and what it stands for.

Tell us a little bit about you and your background.
I am 39 years old; primarily a mother of six children but also studying for a BA (Hons) Illustration with the University of Hertfordshire (distance learning).  I studied A Level Art and Design but while travelling and bringing up my family l did little or no art at all for about 17 years.  Once my youngest son began full time education five years ago, l felt that it was high time l began being creative again.  I love drawing and painting and now take part in exhibitions and sell my art, whilst also taking commissions for portraits and other design requests.  My favourite subjects are historical and fantasy themes and this transpires through a lot of my work, but I also illustrate books and design book covers, and this is something l seek to become more involved in as l progress through my degree course.

For more information about the Inspired by…Heraldry exhibition visit our website.

Landings

Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson will mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings by showcasing the work of Portsmouth photographer Russell Squires in a new Inspired by… exhibition, Landings.

Russell talks to us about his inspiration behind the exhibition and the importance of capturing significant, ever-changing landscapes.

Can you tell us a little bit about you and your background?
I have always had an interest in photography and design; however I chose work over college so this creative pathway was not developed until I started university a little later. Through Higher Education study, I also gained a love for education and helping others; so being able to work at the university where I studied was just a fantastic opportunity, where each day does not really feel like work.

Photographer Russell Squires

Photographer Russell Squires

What was your Inspiration for the work / why do you think it’s important to photograph these locations?
I was not deeply inspired as such to create this series; the work came about through a chance to visit the sites. However, it was not until I was there that I felt more strongly about the locations and wanted to capture how I saw the landscape. I think it is always important to capture and document our landscape as it is forever changing, and more so with these sites as some people may never visit or are unaware of their history.

What has been your most poignant image to capture?
I do not have a favourite image, but a couple of the scenes exhibit an almost timeless quality where you could almost imagine the possible events from D-Day.

Was there an image that was the hardest/most challenging to capture?
Out of the set there was no one particular challenging shot, I feel that perhaps the entirety of the series was challenging, as I had no clear vision of what I wanted to say with the work. The process of capturing the scenes was technically methodical, yet compositionally I approached them quite organically.

Utah-02

How do you feel about having your work displayed at Fort Nelson?
I feel extremely honoured that my work was considered and chosen to be exhibited at Fort Nelson as it is a great historical and educational establishment. The works subject matter is suited very well to the museum, which is complimented by the surrounding exhibits.

Are there any up-coming projects you are working on that you would like to mention?
I’m half Scottish and I am looking into commencing a landscape documentary on the Anglo-Scottish border, I am aiming to photograph the length of the border whilst having 50% of the frame in England and the other 50% in Scotland.

Blogger: Russell Squires, Photographer

The exhibition runs from 1 June to 13 October 2014 as part of the Royal Armouries’ Inspired By programme – an initiative which harnesses the talents of community groups and individuals and invites them to represent the museum’s national collections in exciting and innovative ways. For more information about our Inspired by… programme visit our website.

A Day in the Life of…Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

Assistant Curator, Natasha Bennett talks climbing in cases, eccentric colleagues, being alone with the collection and why she loves her job, as we speak to her about her role as part of #MuseumWeek.

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator - Oriental Collections

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

My primary function as Assistant Curator is to help safeguard, present and develop specialist knowledge about the Royal Armouries’ Oriental Collection. My role is very varied! It involves researching, writing and delivering publications, exhibition content, seminars and talks; answering enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions; supervising visitors who need access to the study collections or help with identifying objects; assisting with filming projects; helping with various collections management duties such as auditing or couriering loan objects, and participating in the acquisitions process which allows the Royal Armouries to bring new pieces into the collection.

When I left school, I did a history degree at the University of Durham, before taking jobs first as a librarian and then as an editorial/publishing assistant. I didn’t feel suited to either of those careers, so I ultimately took the plunge, returned to university and pursued an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds, with the aim of improving my qualifications for the field in which I really wanted to work. Three years ago my dream job of working for the Oriental section of the curatorial department here at the Royal Armouries appeared on the website. I never dreamed that I would be successful with my application, but here I am, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I can genuinely say that I love my job.

There is no normal day for me. The ability to work flexibly is a key part of this job, in more ways than one. I usually start the day at my desk by working through emails and enquiries that have come through, but by home time I can be anywhere; up a stepladder with the elephant armour in the Oriental Gallery or climbing into a case to replace objects that have been temporarily removed for filming or research. One of the weirdest places I ended up was near the lofty ceiling of the loading bay while I was being trained to drive a ‘mobile elevated work platform’ – thankfully that was an abnormal day…

The Royal Armouries houses the national collection of arms and armour, which means that the objects we get to work with every day are literally priceless, and the events, experiences, skills and artistry connected with each piece are legion. Every time I touch one, I feel a frisson of excitement thinking about where it has been over time. Being in stores by yourself can feel quite peculiar, because the heritage that the collection carries with it, is almost a palpable presence. I am also very lucky to work with some fantastic (if slightly eccentric) colleagues – but an interesting collection will always attract interesting people!

For me, the main challenge of my role is packing in enough research about an enormously wide-ranging subject area. Here at the Royal Armouries, the Oriental Collection incorporates all non-European arms and armour, which obviously covers quite a lot of the world! But at the same time that is also the most exciting thing about my work, because there is always something new to learn or discover, and it never gets stale.

One of the main projects I am working on at the moment is a set of conference proceedings. I am currently gathering together all the material from eight papers that were given at our conference East Meets West: Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia at the Tower of London last September. We are hoping to publish these proceedings in the near future.

17th century Mughal dagger  © Royal Armouries

17th century Mughal dagger
© Royal Armouries

I have a great number of favourite items within the collection, and they tend to change or increase in number, depending on what I’m working on at the time. One of my all-time favourites is our 17th century Mughal dagger with a watered-steel blade and a stunning hilt beautifully carved in the shape of a horse’s head. It is the only example that we know of with a hilt that is probably made out of serpentine.

Blogger: Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

A Day in the Life of…Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Have you ever wondered what its like to work at a national museum? Spending everyday up close to one of the UK’s largest collections of arms and armour? As part of #Museumweek, we found out from Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna. 

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

My role is very varied and involves working with the collections and research, as well as working with the public – answering enquires, managing volunteer projects and some education work.

I started at the Royal Armouries in October 2012, having previously worked and volunteered in a number of museums including the Science Museum, National Maritime Museum and Hackney Museum. In addition to the experience of working within a museum I soon realised in order to pursue a curatorial career that worked with collections and included research, I probably needed an MA. I gained an MA in Historical Research in 2011. My first paid museum job working with collections was a part-time role as Museum Assistant at Enfield Museum Service during which I also started a part-time PhD. The PhD is one of the Collaborative Doctoral Awards with the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) looking at the nineteenth century Post Office. Subsequently I was in a good position with practical museum experience and strong research skills to get this role, and who could turn down a job at the Tower of London?

Luckily there is no such thing as a normal day in my job. Being part of a small team based at the Tower can involve travelling across London to inspect a loan or pick up an acquisition. Alternatively I could be based in the office doing research or overseeing volunteers. We have several offices and stores within the Tower, so on some days if I need to move objects or escort researchers I feel like I have walked miles!

I really enjoy the variety of the job and working with such an astounding collection in a spectacular location.

I’m passionate about history so I really enjoy being able to do research into the history of the Tower of London, those that worked here and the collection held here. The more challenging aspects are probably finding different ways to communicate that history with the public. Writing for a blog or an online exhibition requires different skills to working with colleagues to present a handling session or giving a formal paper, but I enjoy every opportunity to share my enthusiasm.

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

I have recently worked on a great volunteer project repackaging a collection of foreshore finds from a dig in 1986.  I worked with the Museum of London Archaeological Archive (formerly LAARC) to get advice on best practice for storing archaeological finds and also to recruit four volunteers to work on the collection.

The project has nearly finished, but it has been a real joy to work with these skilled people, sharing both experience and knowledge. The volunteers had experience of working with archaeological objects and had often done some archaeological mapping of the Thames foreshore. We were able to give them additional historical background on that section of the foreshore, as the material we were repackaging is evidence of Ordnance workshops, and we could share our expertise in identifying standard issue weapon parts.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Furthermore, working with groups and individuals with an active interest in the areas these collections touched on, has allowed us to discover new value to the material, as the photographic archive of the dig clearly demonstrates the amount of erosion that has occurred to the site. In light of current concerns about the speed and extent of foreshore erosion, our dig assumes new importance in recording an area now lost. You can read more about what the volunteers have been up to on their blog.

This probably sounds quite grim, but my favourite objects in the Royal Armouries collection are the block and axe. They are ubiquitous to the Tower of London and the biographies of these objects are fantastic representations of the history of the Tower as a prison and then tourist attraction. The block was used in the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, and has two cuts on the upper surface, suggesting the axe man either had a trial cut or the block was possibly used for a beheading before Lovat. The axe is from the Tower stores, and although we don’t have anything to confirm its use, records suggest the Tower had four execution axes in store in the 17th century. Both these items have been on display together since the nineteenth century when Yeoman Warders of the time would take delight in asking visitors to lay their heads on the block.

Something people might not know is how old we are, the Royal Armouries’ collection originates from the Office of Ordnance stores that were based in and around the Tower of London and had objects on display for visitors to enjoy from the seventeenth century!

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.