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.

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.

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).

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

King James, Japanese armour and the perils of collecting shunga…

Dr Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour at Royal Armouries, tells us about his upcoming lecture on Japanese Gift Armour and why 2013 is an important year…

2013 is the 400th anniversary of diplomatic contact between England and Japan. Not, you might think, one of the most exciting facts of the year, but it’s an important anniversary for Royal Armouries because we hold the only material remains of the first diplomatic meeting back in 1613, the two armours given by the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Hidetada, to King James I of England. One is here in Leeds, the other at the Tower of London. In honour of this fact we themed our 2013 Tower conference East Meets West on the diplomatic giving of arms and armour between Asia and Europe, as part of J400 (see http://japan400.com/ if you would like to learn more). On Wednesday 27 November at 6.30pm I will be giving a lecture at the museum in Leeds about the gift armours.

Japanese armour presented by Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I in 1613, on display at the Tower by 1660. © Royal Armouries

Japanese armour presented by Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I in 1613, on display at the Tower of London by 1660. © Royal Armouries

Within 10 years of the gift of our armour, it had all ended: Japan became a closed country, isolated from the rest of the world for the next 225 years. In England, we forgot where the armours came from, and called the armour that was displayed in the Tower of London from 1660 the ‘armour of the Great Moghul’. The Royal Armouries’ armours weren’t the only ones, either. There is a whole herd of them in European collections, all traceable to gifts from the Japanese government to foreign powers within a 40-year period. You can make quite a nice holiday by visiting them all (in Madrid, Paris, Copenhagen, Innsbruck as well as Leeds and London) or you could just come to the lecture and find out more about them, and why collecting shunga can be perilous!

Blogger: Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour at Royal Armouries

Lecture: Japanese Gift Armour, Wednesday 27 November, 6.30pm. For more information or to book tickets visit the website.

How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse…

With Halloween imminent and the chance of a so-called Zombie Apocalypse increased, our Visitor Experience Team have been exploring the different weapons and methods, that could be used to battle the living dead.

The Visitor Experience Team at Royal Armouries, Leeds get into the Halloween spirit...

The Visitor Experience Team at Royal Armouries, Leeds get into the Halloween spirit…

In a light-hearted blog, our team have identified the best and worst weapons within the Royal Armouries’ collection to defeat a zombie….

Short Magazine Lee Enfield/SMLE MK.III*
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Calibre: .303 in
Rate of fire: 12-15 rpm (rounds per minute)
Capacity: 10 rounds
Effective Range: about 500 -550 yards
Year: 1916
Pros: Easy to use, accurate at range and has a bayonet attachment.
Cons: Only carries 10 rounds, slow rate of fire compared to more modern guns, single shot.
Zombie Rating: 6.5/10

Mills Bomb No.5
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Effective Range: 30 yards
Pros: Potential to “kill” a large amount of zombies with one hit.
Cons: Only as good as your throwing arm. High possibility of accidentally blowing yourself up.
Zombie Rating: 2/10

Bren Gun Mk.I
Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia / United Kingdom
Calibre: original BREN .303 in changes to 7.62 mm in 1954 when we joined NATO
Rate of fire: 500 rpm
Capacity: magazine box 30 rounds or pan 100 rounds
Effective Range: 1800 yards
Year: 1937
Pros: Works with single fire or burst so you can either mow down en masse, or pick off targets. Accurate at long range. The bi-pod can be used to set up a defensible position. The handle allows the user to run and gun, Rambo style!
Cons: It’s very heavy; this is the heaviest version of the BREN gun and is prone to jamming if not loaded correctly. You may need to buddy up if there’s anyone left alive.
Zombie Rating: 9/10

Mosin-Nagant M1891/30
Country of Origin: Russia
Calibre: .303 in
Rate of fire: 12-15 rpm
Capacity: 5 rounds
Effective Range: 730 yards with optics/ 500 yards without (of course the usual trajectory, conditions and marksmanship principles apply)
Year: 1938
Pros: It’s all about head shots when it comes to zombies so you have to be accurate. This weapon has a very good effective range and takes a large round, which is good for stopping power. This is a sniping rifle in 7.62 x 54 Russian, it has a turned down bolt to allow for its PU sight, which is quite accurate.
Cons: Relatively slow rate of fire. Not very helpful at close range. Also the Mosin-Nagant – unlike most B/A rifles – has no holes in the bolt body for gases to escape should there be a catastrophic cartridge failure.
Zombie Rating: 7/10

Liberator Pistol
Country of Origin: United States
Calibre: .45 in
Rate of fire: Single shot weapon
Capacity: 1 round
Effective Range: HAHAHAHAHAHA
Year:1941
Pros: It’s very light.
Cons: Useless in a zombie horde, terrible accuracy, unusable after one shot. You are better off with a water pistol!
Zombie Rating: 1/10

Our resident “zombie expert” aka Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson couldn’t resist joining in with his own suggestions…

“The obvious choice to fit the bill is the famous Kalashnikov rifle (AK47), particularly the Chinese Type 56 version which has a permanently attached, folding spike bayonet that would make short work of a zombie’s skull when the 30 round magazine runs out. Weapons like this aren’t necessarily available in all countries, so the next best thing is the humble 12-gauge shotgun. Nothing is more devastating at close range and the right type of ammunition increases the chance of a hit. Some are available in semi-automatic guise, like the Franchi SPAS 12 pictured.

However, guns are loud, difficult to use precisely, and require ammunition and maintenance. You might be better off with an edged or impact weapon. There’s the cutting power of the legendary Japanese katana, or the British basket-hilt with its built-in hand protection. A staff weapon like the halberd pictured below would keep grasping hands and gnashing teeth at bay! All of these would require a degree of skill to ‘remove the head or destroy the brain’, as the famous quote goes, so a handier alternative would be something like the flanged medieval mace.”

If you can think of a better weapon or method to survive a zombie attack, let us know on twitter using #ZombieWeapon.

Join us all this week (26 Oct – 3 Nov) at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds for a variety of spooky activities including daily talks on how to defeat a zombie. For further details visit the website.

Line of Kings: The Opening…

One week after the opening of Line of Kings, Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes, tells us why the launch is only the beginning…

The past two weeks have passed in a blur and only now, back at head office in Leeds and looking ahead to our next projects, is it possible to draw breath and reflect accurately.

With one week to operational handover, we were in remarkably good shape – able to backfill areas from which we had drawn objects for the new Line of Kings’ exhibition while ensuring that final objects were installed and final snagging carried out.

This included the straightening of each of the 266 breast and back plates, painting black every silver bolt and fixing, and cleaning relentlessly. Everyone pulled together, to ensure that we handed over to Historic Royal Palaces’ operations team on schedule – and with the exhibition in a world-class format.

The final object is placed within the exhibition.  © Royal Armouries

The final object is placed within the exhibition.
© Royal Armouries

We unveiled the new-look Line of Kings at a “soft opening” on 6 July to excellent feedback from both staff and visitors. Tower of London visitor numbers were up to around 12,000 people per day, so the exhibition was well and truly “stress tested”, with only one label coming adrift to be quickly re-installed.

At the same time, our team in Leeds were putting final touches to extensive web pages to support the physical exhibition, which also went live for 6 July. Please visit http://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/tower-of-london/line-of-kings to see the results of our research.

On 9 July, the exhibition was closed again as we showcased Line of Kings to the media, plus Historic Royal Palace (HRP) members – followed by a private view in the evening, attended by RA and HRP stakeholders.

It was a real privilege to be able to recount some of this extraordinary exhibition’s historic story and many treasures, as well as to thank the dedicated and passionate joint project team and the many expert external contractors who supported us on this journey. All have become part of Tower history – and the exhibition owes its success to every one of them.

The newly re-displayed Line of Kings at the Tower of London. © Royal Armouries

The newly re-displayed Line of Kings at the Tower of London. © Royal Armouries

With the exhibition now officially open, you might think this would be the end of the story. However, as this is a permanent exhibition we are looking ahead, with further improvements planned for September. We are also monitoring visitor feedback at #LineofKings.

Meanwhile, project meetings for our next exciting Tower exhibition have just begun…

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes