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.

Inspired by Heraldry

This Spring, the Yorkshire Heraldry Society brings a fascinating display of hand-painted heraldry to the Royal Armouries’ as part of the museum’s Inspired by… Programme.

We spoke to calligrapher and long serving member of the Yorkshire Heraldry Society, Jim Winstanley to find out a bit more about his passion for the historical art of heraldry…

Jim Winstanley

Jim Winstanley

What is the Yorkshire Heraldry Society?
The Society was founded in 1970 and was originally known as the Leeds Heraldry Society. As more people joined from outside Leeds, namely Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford it then changed its title to the Yorkshire Heraldry Society in 1987. The Society promotes heraldry through lectures, Art and local History and meets about 8 times a year.

How long have you been a member of the society?
I have been a member for over 20 years.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of heraldry?
Heraldry came about by people decorating shields with patterns and animals, in time these became permanent and handed down from father to son. Richard III founded the College of Arms.

What interests you about heraldry? How did you get into it?
I am interested in the Historical side of heraldry – War of Roses etc. Historically, they say heraldry is shorthand to history. I am a calligrapher and I received commissions from Civic bodies, which, included Coats of Arms, and this increased my interest in heraldry.

How long does it take you to produce a piece of heraldry?
It depends on the design and elements involved. Usually drawing and research (if any is required) takes between 4 hours and 6-10 hours for a finished piece.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Heraldry day on 10 May – what can people get involved with?
The heraldry day is an annual event at the Royal Armouries Museum and this year there will be four lectures – each about a different aspect of heraldry. The topics are; An introduction to the Stall Plates of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle, Scottish Civic Heraldry on Postcards, Royal Charters and the Royal Mint and Heraldry in our Country Houses. Tickets are £15 including lunch.

How can people join the heraldry society?
Anyone can join – you don’t have to be artistic and we would welcome any new members. The talks given at the meetings include, not just local heraldry but National, Civic, Royal and Continental heraldry.

Blogger: Jim Winstanley, Member of the Yorkshire Heraldry Society

If you would like to attend the Heraldry day on Saturday 10 May or would like further information about joining the society, contact Terry Melia at terry@melia.org.uk.

The Inspired by Heraldry exhibition will be on display at the Royal Armouries Leeds from 28 March 2014. For more information, visit our website.

The Curator goes to War – ffoulkes’ tales – February 1914

Mr ffoulkes’ second February in office, as the Armouries’ curator, was a quieter month than his first when the Tower had been subject to a Suffragette “outrage”.

The year 1914 saw him start to tackle an outstanding problem in the White Tower – the displays. He had continued Dillon’s work in re-organising the upper floor of the White Tower which had received the contents of the New Horse Armoury in 1881/2 before the latter’s demolition, but space was limited and he wanted to deliver a more didactic exhibit.

The New Horse Armoury constructed against the White Tower’s south side was a crenelated, single storey Gothic building housing the 19th century version of the Line of Kings display from 1826 – 1881. The building was less than universally popular and the displays although impressive were quite old fashioned for the new century.

An interior shot of the New horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

An interior shot of the New Horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

Initially, the displaced armours, horses and figures crowded onto the upper floor of the White Tower, replacing the Volunteer Armoury resident there since 1862. They progressed along the gallery from south to north, with an accompanying forest of staff weapons and munition armour bristling behind.

– The “Horse Armoury” as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

– The Horse Armoury as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

The space was lit naturally, by lights cut into the roof in 1812, when the area was under the control of the Record Office, and which were later enlarged by the architect, Anthony Salvin. In 1884, the Royal Engineers brought electric lighting into the gallery although ffoulkes found the hanging globes rather too harsh.

It was Salvin also who created the light wells in the floor in 1856 – the surrounding railing of Land Transport Corps’ swords dates from the same period.  It was these that ffoulkes attacked in the first instance.

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery.  The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery. The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

ffoulkes crowed in the Tower minute book (i.189) “13 Feb 1914 – After over 60 years the incongruous railings of Band [sic] swords round the well-holes in the upper Armouries were removed today” – and the diary (i.188) claims the holes were filled in.  Slowly but surely the Armouries was being propelled into the 20th century.

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithematic…

Ahead of the Victorian themed half-term activities at Fort Nelson, exploring 19th century childhoods, Curator of Artillery Philip Magrath explains Fort Nelson’s role in the 1870s.

At the time Fort Nelson was completed in 1871, the Cardwell Reforms of the British Army were well under way. These were aimed at cost reduction, modernisation and increased recruitment. The War Department had a duty to school soldiers’ children who were regarded as potential recruits, inducing heavy investment in their education.

Fort Nelson © Royal Armouries

Fort Nelson © Royal Armouries

Garrison schools were divided into those for ‘infants’ and those for ‘grown children’. A schoolmaster took older boys and girls in the morning whilst in the afternoon the girls joined the infants who were taught by a schoolmistress.

Reading, spelling and singing were taught to the infants and reading, writing, dictation, grammar, arithmetic, algebra, English history, geography and singing to the older children. The afternoon focus was on ‘industrial instruction’, which meant domestic duties such as needlework for the girls and tailoring, shoe making and carpentry for the boys.

Discipline was very strict and based on the regimental code of conduct. Children’s mothers were forbidden to complain to the teachers. Any discontent had to be reported by the child’s father to the commanding officer.

Fort Nelson ran a small school in the School Room, currently used by Collections staff. In 1871, this served 24 children. In all five Portsdown Hill forts, 105 children required schooling that year! It is presumed that teachers were engaged from the local population although no newspaper advertisements have been discovered to this effect. Teaching may otherwise have fallen on the shoulders of the Officers and their wives.

Fort Nelson School Room © Royal Armouries

Fort Nelson School Room © Royal Armouries

The enlistment of boys after schooling was not compulsory but the War Department hoped that their experience was designed to indoctrinate them into joining up.

This February half term, visitors are invited to tread in the footsteps of the Fort’s 19th century schoolchildren by heading back to the classroom – as well as sampling Victorian games and crafts.

Victorian Life at Fort Nelson runs from 17 – 21 February, for further information visit the website.

Blogger: Philip Magrath, Curator of Artillery

The Curator goes to War – Happy New Year! – January 1914

The year 1913 ended on a high for ffoulkes with the acquisition of a large volume of the Inventory and Remains of the Tower and Armouries on 18 December.  History fails to record what ffoulkes had actually been looking for in the Ordnance Office, but his discovery and subsequent annexation of this “1,000 pages” dealing with armour stores from 1675-8 was a weighty addition to the collection.

A weighty tome.  © Royal Armouries

A weighty tome.
© Royal Armouries

Other curatorial highlights had included the cleaning of the mask of the horned helmet, “which had been painted red since 1660”, to reveal the engraved decoration beneath. This grotesque helmet (IV.22) is all that remains of an armour gifted to the young King Henry VIII by the Emperor Maximilian I and remains a startling piece.

The Horned Helmet revealed. © Royal Armouries

The Horned Helmet revealed.
© Royal Armouries

Front of house, ffoulkes had continued the work re-organising the displays on the White Tower top floor that his predecessor and mentor, Lord Dillon, had begun.  Most spectacularly Henry VIII’s silver and engraved armour had been remounted on Mr Joubert’s noble, if not entirely life-like model horse, in May.

Joubert’s horse – and Henry © Royal Armouries

Joubert’s horse – and Henry
© Royal Armouries

January 1914 saw the Burgundian Bard shed its rider and move from balancing on the light well crossbeams to the central North side of the gallery.

The Burgundian Bard before its relocation in 1913.  Behind, the Curator’s office can be glimpsed through the southern arch. © Royal Armouries

The Burgundian Bard before its relocation in 1913. Behind, the Curator’s office can be glimpsed through the southern arch.
© Royal Armouries

Perhaps most importantly, ffoulkes addressed a number of basic collection issues. In July 1913, he tackled the “question of the military remains of the United Kingdom” involving the British Museum, the Rotunda Woolwich, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and of course the Tower Armouries.  Despite the Rotunda’s refusal to participate, and RUSI’s non-committal approach, a committee was formed, meeting at the Tower in December and their initial report produced in January.

In October 1913, he had contacted the Lords Lieutenant of various counties proposing the return of their militia colours currently held at the Tower, suggesting they be kept in a local church or public building thereafter. By 31 December 1913,  he had their consent, and so the New Year dawned with the prospect of numerous photo opportunities as ffoulkes personally made the returns.  His master stroke?  The counties footed the bill.

The Armouries “office” (1883 -1915) recorded by ffoulkes as 38 feet long x 4 foot 7.5 inches wide, housing 2 tables and 2 chairs for examination of the collection. © Royal Armouries

The Armouries “office” (1883 -1915) recorded by ffoulkes as 38 feet long x 4 foot 7.5 inches wide, housing 2 tables and 2 chairs for examination of the collection.
© Royal Armouries

Armed with the Treasury’s grant of £765 towards producing a large illustrated catalogue of the Armouries – roughly equivalent to £62,200 today – ffoulkes had a busy year in prospect.

There was still the outstanding question of accommodation.  The Armouries’ office consisted of a mural passage running along the south face of the White Tower top floor, behind the displays and inherited from the Storekeepers.  Dillon had chosen to conduct his extensive correspondence from his library in Ditchley, thriftily travelling up to London 3rd class to deal with the collections.  Meanwhile, foulkes was resolved to achieve better on site provision, but coming events would overshadow and delay such considerations.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

RAGE against the Museum…

In February, our museum in Leeds will host RAGE (Royal Armouries’ Gaming Event), a weekend-long gaming tournament, including two tournaments: Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000.

We asked Visitor Experience Assistant and War Gaming enthusiast Carl Newbould, to give an insight into the world of Gaming…

RAGE-Web-Banner

What is War Gaming?
Originally, war games were designed to stimulate a strategic mind in soldiers and these included games like Chess and Draughts. Later (around the 1800s) they developed to become more free form and included dice to represent the unpredictability of war. By the 20th century, War Gaming became a hobby accessible to all. It was used as a way for people to enjoy painting and building miniatures to use in strategic games against their friends.

Why are you personally interested in it?
Armies in Warhammer (and other war games) are built and painted by the hobbyist. It means that no other army is like your own, creating a strong feeling of pride and ownership over your miniatures. It is also a social hobby that allows you to meet new people and enjoy using your army in new strategic challenges.

How do people get into it?
There is a wealth of hobby stores and websites selling miniatures. Most games have starter sets; you get a rulebook and all the kit you need to play your first game. If you are interested, try searching for Games Workshop, Mantic or Warlord games online.

Why is it exciting for the Royal Armouries to host an event like this?
War Gaming is steeped in history and so is the museum.

Games can be brought to life by going into the museum and seeing real armour and weapons from warriors throughout time.

Can you sum up the rules of the game?
Warhammer is a game based on strategy and luck (although some will argue it’s more of one than the other!). It is split into phases, movement, magic, shooting and combat. Each phase gives a different challenge and can influence whether you obtain victory or concede defeat.

What will be happening over the weekend?
Saturday (February 8) will be dedicated to Warhammer Fantasy and Sunday (February 9) to Warhammer 40k. Each day will feature three games and give participants the chance to win certificates and a place in the Yorkshire Open tournament finals!

Gamers will get a chance to see some of the armour and weapons from Royal Armouries’ national collection up close, including a handling session. We will also have Mantic here who will be bringing their games to play, free of charge! If you get hooked, then head over to the shop where we will be stocking a range of their products.

Blogger: Carl Newbould, Visitor Experience Assistant, Royal Armouries.

RAGE (Royal Armouries’ Gaming Event) will take place on Saturday 8 & Sunday 9 February 2014, 10am – 5pm. Tickets are available online.

In partnership with GCN (Gaming Club Network).