Facing-Recovering at Fort Nelson

Artist Jevan Watkins Jones talks about his experiences collaborating with soldiers and veterans for new exhibition facing – recovering, currently on display at the Royal Armouries Fort Nelson until February 1.

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Jevan Watkins Jones & Luke Hardy 2013

(Facing-Recovering Image: Jevan Watkins Jones and Luke Hardy, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite.)

What was your role in the project?

My role was as lead artist responsible for designing and delivering a socially engaged art project with wounded and injured soldiers (WIS) as an Associate Artist to the Learning Team, firstsite in partnership with Chavasse VC House, Recovery Centre, Colchester Garrison. The project was based at the centre one day a week for 10 months.

How did you work with the soldiers and veterans to share their personal stories and experience of injury and post-traumatic stress?

Words became drawing and drawing became words – they were interwoven. My original intention had been to draw more myself in the situation, directly from them and their stories. I had intended to create an active studio space where drawings were left on the wall of the canteen. First mine then theirs. This was not allowed on the new centre walls but also it became less relevant. The space I had created appeared to have founded itself upon talking together; talking about soldiering and art and, liminally, the human relationship between these two – me and them. I say ‘me and them’ though I often listened more than I spoke because it was still the offer of ‘Drawing with Jevan’ that instigated that space and my job to draw the visual out in a relational way. It was my duty in this instance not there’s. They didn’t have to participate or even turn up. The only way that the drawing-out could happen was to keep hold of these conversations as best I could in note form in order to draw on them in weeks to come. Key events were up most in my mind and these became drivers, or more rewardingly, evidence of a growing rapport with a few individuals channelling the course  of the project at what was and still remains for many a raw time.

(Image: Josh Green, Eye Crowd, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite. Please use title as caption)

(Facing-Recovering Image: Josh Green, Eye Crowd, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite.)

How is this exhibition significant to the current experiences of the armed forces?

From my perspective as an artist, civilian and having a step-son who has served in Afghanistan, it is significant in as much as it presents the contemporary soldier as a fellow human being who is as vulnerable if not more because of the extreme situations they face. My experience through this project is that many soldiers feel unable, even disabled, to reconcile their experiences with living a civilian life. The adjustment appears to be challenging and is certainly exacerbated by persistent stereotypes that can reinforce a sense of isolation or at least difference. The few soldiers I met wanted to express themselves personally and grab an opportunity to publicly declare their voice so that as Luke Hardy, Ex-Private and Sniper said people would be able to see ‘..the person behind the soldier.’

Is there a particular piece in this exhibition that stood out for you?

They, of course, all do for different reasons but because I have a particular love for drawing I would single out Josh’s drawing, ‘maimed Man’ as it really rocked me when he first presented it to me. Art has this potential but it is infrequently met. It is drawing in its most elemental, stripped back and sincere. It is also such a timeless image – man against man, defence, protection and humanity all rolled into one.

facing – recovering is on display at the Royal Armouries Fort Nelson until 1st February 2015.

 

 

They That Are Left: the Royal Armouries hosts a stunning Remembrance photographic exhibition

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…They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them…”

from Laurence Binyon’s ‘The Fallen’ (first published in The Times, 21 September 1914)

Last week the Royal Armouries hosted the opening of photographer Brian David Stevens’ ‘They That Are Left’ exhibition, an inspiring ten-year project comprising of portrait photographs of war veterans, taken each Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph from 2002 to 2012. The project consists of 100 portraits, a selection of which is currently on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds until 1 February, as part of our First World War Centenary commemorations.

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As with each passing year our war veterans do grow older, and age both wearies them and condemns their valuable memories, they are thus at risk of becoming unknown. With this in mind, Brian took inspiration from Binyon’s famous poem, saying “the viewer is given no information, just a portrait. These faces then are as of unknown soldiers; no cap badges, no ribbons of spooling medals, no insignia for military rank. They are faces only. Each deep-etched with who they are and what they did, that we might look, and think – and thank them.”

“As the years pass, the number of veterans from World War I has dwindled to nothing and the number from World War II is steadily reduced, but their places are taken by other veterans from newer conflicts, who are also included.”

They That Are Left

Below is a short interview with Brian at the Royal Armouries about his collection, currently showing until 1 February.

The exhibition – which forms part of Royal Armouries’ ‘Inspired by…’ programme – transfers in March to Fort Nelson, Portsmouth, home to the national collection of artillery. For more information about Brian David Stevens’ work, please see his website here; http://briandavidstevens.com/ .

 

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.

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.

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.

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

Line of Kings: One week to go…

With just one week to go until the opening of Line of Kings, Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes, tells us about those last finishing touches…

The countdown to the opening of the new-look Line of Kings is now well underway – with the challenge to install more than 350 stunning objects in just four weeks nearly completed.

The White Tower continues to be a hive of activity, thanks to a partnership of Royal Armouries’ staff from both our Leeds and London sites, including display technicians, conservators, registrars, audio visual and lighting designers.

Every day has seen extraordinary changes in the exhibition space – as scenic structures and cases have been covered and filled with stunning objects from the Armouries’ national collection. Every one of these objects has been selected in recognition of its role in the world’s longest-running visitor attraction at some point in history. They range from royal armours from the Line of Kings itself, to life-size, carved wooden horses which once supported these armours and ‘curiosities’ – objects whose stories have fascinated Tower of London visitors for centuries.

Each object has its own bespoke mount, made in our Leeds workshop and is then individually installed – from the walls of mass display, such as 254 breast and back plates and 44 lances to the exquisite armours of kings and princes.

Technicians take a moment to admire the wall of breastplates mid-install © Royal Armouries

Technicians take a moment to admire the wall of breastplates mid-install © Royal Armouries

All of this three-dimensional installation is set in a context of text and graphic interpretation and so the last week has seen specialist companies, the hub and BAF graphics, working seamlessly with the Royal Armouries’ team to ensure everything is ready for the operational handover.

The final layer is that of lighting and sound design – both produced by Armouries’ staff – creating the perfect showcase for the Line of Kings’ objects and stories.

With one week to go, the last 20 objects will be moved into place, final labels will be installed and everything will be cleaned and audited to ensure that 21st century visitors will have the best possible experience when the exhibition officially opens on 10 July. We look forward to hearing their responses…

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes