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.

Elemental, my dear Watson!

Christmas has come early for conservation as Royal Armouries’ Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy tells us about the exciting new addition to the museum’s conservation equipment…

Much of conservation, and the start of treatment on any object, begins with an in-depth look at materials. We have to be aware of what elements make up an object, how it has been manufactured and how these degrade over time, in order to make informed choices about how to prolong its longevity. The Conservation Department at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds has a shiny, new and portable instrument called an EDXRF (Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence) that will help us to investigate all of these areas, and we are very, very excited about it!

Christmas comes early for the Royal Armouries with the addition of a EDXRF (Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence)

Christmas comes early for the Royal Armouries with the addition of a EDXRF (Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence)

The addition of the EDXRF will enable the conservation department to investigate the materials in the national collection at an elemental level – and more importantly it is non-destructive. We will be able to get more of an idea about the uses of different metal alloys used for certain types of arms and armour, how these adapted over time and how they differ around the world.

An example of this could be when analysing leather, often found associated with arms and armour. The reading will pick up chromium so we then know the leather must have been chrome tanned. Chrome tanning of leather began in 1858, meaning we can use this information to help date an object. This also highlights another benefit of the EDXRF, as we can use it to help identify fakes. A number of elements and alloys that are around today could not have been extracted or manipulated for use in the past, due to the lack of modern industrial techniques. If these are present, in a supposedly historic object, then it could indicate that the object, or at least part of it, is a modern reproduction.

The EDXRF will also help us to find out about manufacturing techniques; an example of this is looking at certain decorative techniques. When analysing objects that have been gilded, a reading showing the presence of mercury will tell us that the object was gilded, using the mercury gilding technique. If we took readings from all our gilded objects we could then identify how popular mercury gilding was in the past compared to other gilding techniques.

We hope to gain lots of important information through the use of our new EDXRF and the results that we obtain, and we really look forward to sharing them with you and the other arms and armour enthusiasts out there!

Blogger: Ellie Rowley-Conwy, Conservator

Japanese Wakizashi Sword

As part of the Ingham case renovation in the Oriental Gallery, a large number of Japanese swords required cleaning and conservation at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

The swords had a variety of accessories and the highly ornate ones required more in-depth work. One of the most elaborate Japanese swords had approximately fourteen pieces to it – all of which required individual attention.

The object is a Japanese Wakizashi sword and dates back to the 17th century. The blade is signed ‘Hizen kuni ju Tadahiro’ and is accompanied by a wooden replica blade and two sets of scabbards and hilts; one simple and wooden, the other coated in lacquer and highly decorative with accessories.

Japanese-sword-image1

The decorative hilt was the main area of concern as the ray skin coating was fragile in a number of places and the gold dragon decorations showed evidence of copper corrosion. The metal blade collar, washers, utility knife and hair implement all showed signs of discolouration and copper corrosion. The decorative scabbard, while in good condition, had a small fragment of lacquer detached from the surface.

Before Conservators could start work on the sword, it had to be taken apart so that each item could be treated on individually. We took care to note the order and position of the accessories, so that it was not put back together incorrectly. Taking photographs helped with this process.

sword2

The metal accessories were cleaned using cotton wool swabs with a solvent specific for metals. This removed the corrosion and discolouration, without causing further damage to the objects.

The hilt’s decorative dragons were cleaned by brushing on an appropriate solvent, in order to fully penetrate the uneven surface and remove corrosion.  The fragile ray skin coating was stabilised using a suitable adhesive that was applied using capillary action, to strengthen the bond to the base material.

The decorative scabbard was cleaned using an alternative solvent, which would not damage the original lacquer, to remove the surface dirt. The detached fragment was re-attached using a suitable adhesive to secure it back to the wooden base, without damaging the lacquer exterior. The wooden scabbard and hilt, along with the remaining metal accessories, were dry cleaned to remove the surface dust and dirt

To clean the blade, traditional Japanese methods were used, including the application of a dry powder to remove any previous oil. This was then wiped with Japanese tissue to remove it. Finally, the blade was coated with a specially tested traditional Japanese oil to protect it and prevent deterioration.

Blogger: Conservator, Vicky Garlick

Behind the Scenes…

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at a national museum? Now is your chance to find out as our curatorial department plans a special day for you to meet the curators and get their hands on the amazing study collection.

Curatorial Manager Lynda Jackson tells us why the behind-the-scenes experience is a must for museum lovers.

While the galleries are home to a huge selection of objects, these displays represent only a small selection from the 70,000 plus arms, armour and archives that make up the Royal Armouries’ collection. These objects include a huge range of European and Oriental-edged weapons, firearms, armour and artillery, alongside original manuscripts, artworks and prints.

Senior Curator of Armour and Art Karen Watts and Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour and Oriental Collections, will guide guests through the collection and provide an opportunity to handle original pieces and view the study collections. Feeling the smooth finish of Greenwich armour, or the weight of an early matchlock, really helps visitors to understand how objects work and how they were originally made and used.

The session starts with a unique seminar in which Karen and Thom will discuss a range of special objects, including edged weapons, firearms and armour. Guests will then be given the opportunity to touch and handle these important objects. Most museums have large study collections in storage but few people get the opportunity to explore them with a world expert in their field.

Finally, it’s time to relax with pre-dinner drinks in the gallery and the evening is rounded off with a three-course meal in the Hunting Gallery’s Gun Room, hosted by Karen and Thom. This is a fabulous opportunity to view behind the scenes and a real treat for any lover of arms and armour.

This unique ‘Behind the Scenes’ experience will take place on 19 January 2013. For more information and to book, visit our website.