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.

Equine Installion-ations – a continuing story of museum ffoulkes

Currently wooden horses and armour dominate Royal Armouries’ life at the Tower with the opening of the new exhibition celebrating the Line of Kings – our oldest on-site display and the longest-running visitor attraction in the world.

One hundred years ago, the Tower Curator Charles ffoulkes (who unusually spelled his surname without an initial capital letter) was similarly engaged as he turned his attention to one of the iconic pieces in the Royal Armouries collection and its mount.

Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour for man and horse (II.5 & VI 1-5) was believed to be a wedding gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian to the young king and his first bride, Catherine of Aragon. Today the armour is dated to about 1515 and attributed to Henry’s Greenwich workshops. It retains a touch of romance, with the couple’s initials decorating the skirt of the rider’s armour and background heraldry incorporating their personal and family badges.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

The rearing horse that had carried this armour throughout the 19th into the early 20th century had fallen victim to the ongoing fight against woodworm raging in the White Tower. The gallant steed is shown displayed in the New Horse Armoury -  a crenellated Gothic addition to the south face of the White Tower built in the 1820s to accommodate the revamped 17th century Line of Kings – in Frank M Good’s stereoscopic card.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

In 1882 the New Horse Armoury was emptied prior to demolition. Henry and his horse found themselves relocated to the White Tower top floor west, balanced  precariously on the exposed beams crossing the mid 19th century light wells.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

The Tower Diary (I.188) notes  “a new horse of papier maché made by M.Felix Joubert of Chelsea” arriving in the Tower on May 6,  1913. Monsieur Joubert was more famed as a cabinet maker, and during the Great War produced a trench knife, but his new horse proved popular, if rather unrealistic, in its arrested stance, and its relatives appeared in supporting roles at Windsor Castle and the Wallace Collection.

It was hoisted up to the top floor of the White Tower as this contemporary photograph shows.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

In October, 1914, the original deal horse “formerly used for the engraved suit” and “marked 1824, Graher and Wooton carpenters” was “cut by order”.  This was another historic link severed, as 1824 was the time that Sir Samuel Meyrick was re-organising the Line of Kings display in a more scholarly fashion and buying in new horses.

In 2009, Joubert’s horse was itself retired, returning to Leeds, and Henry found himself astride a flocked 21st century horse commissioned from David Hayes as part of the Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill exhibition celebrating the quincentenary of Henry’s accession (1509).  You are invited to trot along to view the pair and their companions on the White Tower entrance floor.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries.

Line of Kings: The Haunting of Richard III, part 2

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, continues her investigations into why Richard III wasn’t included in the Line of Kings…

As discussed in my previous blog, Richard III was not present in the historic displays of the Line of Kings in the Tower, as at the time he was not an acceptable symbol of monarchy. However, his presence was felt through the association with other figures represented in the displays. These included the two ‘lost princes’, the nephews Richard is said to have murdered in the Tower.

In this Ink drawing of the Line of Kings, you can just about see the crown floating above Edward V’s head. © Royal Armouries

In this Ink drawing of the Line of Kings, you can just about see the crown floating above Edward V’s head. © Royal Armouries

We have descriptions of Edward V from Tower of London guidebooks from the 1750s, when he was displayed in a child’s armour sitting on a horse with a crown floating above his head – this is explained in the guidebook to signify the fact that Edward was declared king but never crowned. He is also displayed with a lance, which I believe is used to emphasise his small size compared to the large figures of Edward IV and Henry VII on either side.

Though not in the line; his brother, the other ‘lost prince’, Richard, Duke of York, was also represented in 18th century displays at the Tower. As legend has it, Richard would have been approximately 10 years old when his uncle ordered his death within the walls of the Tower. In these displays, Richard is portrayed wearing a tiny suit of armour, too small for a 10-year-old, and holding a miniature lance.

The Dwarf Armour II.126, stands at 37.5in tall. © Royal Armouries

The Dwarf Armour II.126, stands at 37.5in tall. © Royal Armouries

The miniature size of the armour and lance would have worked well to convey the vulnerability of a child. I also think the use of armour would contribute to that look of vulnerability. Armour, unlike clothing, is able to give a true impression of body size and stature as it was tailored to fit the individual. So the appearance of this ‘second skin’ as something that is made to protect but so small and delicate would have emphasised the fragility of the person it was supposed to represent. The miniature lance, in contrast to his brother’s giant lance, works to emphasise this child-like quality, looking more like a toy than a serious tool of sport.

It is also worth remembering that in 1674 the discovery of the bones of two boys, thought to be 10 and 13-years-old, during the demolition of the forebuilding set against the south face of the White Tower, appeared to confirm the legend of Richard III’s murderous deeds.

This is obviously not conclusive, but ties the Richard III and the two boys closely to Tower history only strengthened through these historic displays. Though Richard doesn’t appear in our new exhibition, it seems guaranteed that whatever one thinks of him, he will continue to lurk in the shadows of Tower history!

The Line of Kings opens on 10 July 2013. Read more blogs in the Line of Kings Series.

Skyfall – Making sense of Bond’s PPK…

After the release of the latest James Bond movie, Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms at Royal Armouries talks guns and gadgets and poses the question – does Bond’s PPK still make sense?

Gadgets, cars and firearms have always been part of the Bond package, from novelties like the famous ‘Golden Gun’ to Bond’s own personal issue pistol. Most famously, 007 traditionally carries the Walther PPK (Polizei Pistole Kriminal), though from ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ until Daniel Craig’s first outing in ‘Casino Royale’, he adopts the bigger, plastic-framed Walther P99. In keeping with Skyfall’s ‘back to basics’ approach, the PPK appears again, this time with a biometric set of grips to prevent Bond’s enemies from turning his own weapon against him.

Walther Model PPK pistol, German (PR.12124)
© Royal Armouries Museum

Some early PPKs, like the above example, were made for the Nazis during the Second World War. It is perhaps ironic that one of post-war Britain’s greatest fictional heroes be armed with the same weapon.

Once a personal choice, it seems that Bond’s preferred sidearm has made a comeback as the standard issue sidearm of MI6. Though unlikely to be the case in real life today, the slightly larger PP is indeed an official British military issue pistol, and one has seen use by Special Forces. It will only be replaced as a personal defence weapon for aircrew this year by the new L113A1 Glock pistol that is set to replace the standard-issue Brownings and SIGs in current use.

Bond’s own fictional relationship with the PPK came about in an interesting example of a fan being able to influence a production design choice. In the 1950s, firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote to Bond author Ian Fleming, with tongue only slightly in cheek, criticising his initial choice of a .25 calibre Beretta and suggesting instead the now-iconic PPK. (Read the letter here)

Boothroyd became Bond’s unofficial armourer, and as the spin-off movie franchise took off, became immortalised as the now famous character of ‘Q’ (for ‘Quartermaster’). Q returns in ‘Skyfall’ as a nerdy cyber-warrior who places more faith in computers than in firearms. Well, as this change would suggest, times have indeed moved on since 1955, and I like to think that Mr Boothroyd would now find the PPK to be rather out of date. It’s low-powered, low-capacity, and excessively heavy when compared with more modern choices for a concealable covert-operations weapon. Likewise, the .357 Magnum revolver preferred by Boothroyd at that time makes little sense today, being heavy, hard-recoiling, difficult to conceal, limited to six rounds, and no more capable against the typical hench-person than most modern semi-automatic pistols. More of a ‘Dirty Harry’ than a James Bond gun!

So, what should Bond carry next time around? It’s not publicly known what operatives of the real-life Secret Intelligence Service now carry, but as the similar P228 and the larger P226 are British military issue, the SIG-Sauer P229 makes a lot of sense and, if I were following in Boothroyd’s footsteps, would be my own recommendation. It’s more accurate and powerful than the venerable PPK, as well as packing twice as many rounds into its magazine. The downside is that it’s larger and heavier than the tiny PPK. Smaller options include the Ruger LCP9, the Kahr CM9, or another SIG, the P239. All of these are similarly light and powerful, firing the 9mm Parabellum cartridge rather than the 9mm Short or the even weaker 7.65mm Browning cartridges available for the PPK. The same goes for perhaps the best compromise choice, the slimline PPS – Walther’s spiritual successor to the classic PPK and the weapon chosen for last year’s 007 novel ‘Carte Blanche’.

Personally, considering the modern concealable holsters and specialist tailors available that would still enable Bond to wear his best tuxedo, I would have to advise him to opt for the P229, pictured below:

SIG-Sauer P229 blowback, double, single of DOA action, manufactured by SIG Arms/J.P. Sauer & Sohn GmbH, Switzerland. (PR.8188)
© Royal Armouries Museum

But perhaps, like the Aston Martin DB5, the classic elegant lines of the PPK are what keep filmmakers coming back for more. Due to the high-pressure rounds they fire, as well as modern fashion, all of the modern alternatives above are chunky-looking by comparison, even if they hide just as well under clothing. They really don’t make ‘em like they used to!

You can see a PPK along with some of the other iconic movie firearms and covert equipment in our Self-Defence Gallery here at Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

 

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.

The Axe and the Head

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, tries not to lose her head in the mystery of the heading axe…

Recently I received an enquiry regarding an axe; could we identify it as a heading axe? Well if anyone could, you’d think the Tower of London could. However, identifying a heading axe is a lot more difficult than you would think.

Indeed, the shape of an axe head can tell you a lot about what an axe was used for. From Coachmaker Axes (clue’s in the name) to Blocking Axes (often used in shipbuilding), axes were often designed as tools of trade rather than weapons. To discover their uses we often turned to trade directories or the handy Salaman’s Dictionary of Woodwork Tools.

Nevertheless, cutting heads off isn’t normally named as a particular use and ‘Executioner’ isn’t generally the sort of trade these works are discussing. Depictions of public executions aren’t always reliable either. Artistic impressions are sometimes made long after the execution with no way of knowing if the artist attended any public executions. The image below of Lady Jane Grey’s execution was actually created in the 19th century. Furthermore written descriptions don’t tend to focus on the design of the axe when describing a public figure’s last few moments.

Engraving by George Cruikshank showing the execution of Lady Jane Grey on Tower Green in 1554. From The Tower of London / by W.H. Ainsworth (1845)
Copyright: Board of Trustees of the Armouries

Consequently, provenance is our best indication. Beheading was an execution preserved for the rich and (previously) powerful. The average execution involved hanging and if you were particularly treacherous you were hung, drawn and quartered. Moreover, it was primarily the English who favoured an axe beheading, whereas the executioners on the continent preferred the sword. Not trusting the axe, and perhaps an English executioner, Anne Boleyn requested a swordsman and sword to be shipped over from France especially for her execution.

Heading axe. Probably English, 16th century
Copyright: Board of Trustees of the Armouries

The Tower of London’s heading axe is traditionally believed to be one of four that we know were stored here in the 17th century, but we don’t have details about its use. We actually know more about the block it is displayed with, which was used for the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, but that is a different story. So in conclusion, to know if you have a heading axe you need to know where your axe head comes from.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections