Ask A Curator Day Wednesday 17 September 2014

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a curator of artillery? Perhaps you have always wanted to know what was in a ‘vampire killing kit’, or speculated as to why the White Tower has two mummified cats in its collection! Well now’s your chance to find out and ask the experts directly as the Royal Armouries team will be taking part in the annual #AskaCurator Day tomorrow.

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Organised by cultural blogger @MarDixon, this social media event creates an unique opportunity for members of the public to communicate directly with curators and people who work behind the scenes in cultural venues. Last year 622 museums from over 37 countries took part, answering questions about collections, objects and histories from participants around the world.

Royal Armouries will have a range of experts on hand to answer your arms, armour and artillery related questions:

Leeds

Natasha Bennett, Acting Curator Oriental Collections

Natasha obtained her BA in History from the University of Durham (2007), and a MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Leeds (2010). Before coming to the Armouries, she worked as an intern at the V&A and the Green Howards Regimental Museum. Prior to her MA she worked as an editorial and publishing assistant, and as a librarian.

Natasha works with our wide range of arms and armour from Asia and Africa, spanning multiple countries, cultures and time periods. Past research projects have included papers analysing Asian matchlock mechanisms and the substantial gift of Indian arms and armour bestowed on the Tower of London in 1853 by the East India Company. Currently she is looking at the textiles incorporated into Japanese armour, and is also interested in how a study of Asian and African arms and armour can provide insight into the complexities of trading relations across the world over time.

Henry Yallop, Assistant Curator European Edged Weapons

Having completed his first degree in History (BA, King’s College London 2001-2004), Henry went on to focus on the early medieval period at the University of York (MA, Medieval Studies, 2004-2005). Henry then began his museum career as a long-term volunteer at the Norwich Castle Museum, whilst working part time. He moved back to London to work for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, firstly with the Export Licencing Department and then for The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.   When MLA relocated, Henry took the opportunity to do a Museum qualification at the University of East Anglia (MA, Museum Studies & Cultural Heritage, 2010-11) which he received after further voluntary work with the National Army Museum.

He took up the post of Assistant Curator (European Edged Weapons) in 2012 after a lifelong fascination with arms, armour and military history. He is particularly interested in the development, use and effect of historical weapons.

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Having completed a first degree in Archaeology (BA, Exeter 1997-2000), Jonathan began his museum career as a volunteer at Coldharbour Mill Museum in Devon. After further voluntary work with the National Museum of Ireland, he received his postgraduate diploma in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2002, and found work at Colchester Museum documenting the archaeological and oral history collections there.

In 2006 he joined the Collections Department at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford site, sourcing objects and carrying out research for the major ‘AirSpace’ redevelopment. He then became Assistant Curator of Military History at the National War Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle where he curated the exhibition ‘Call to Arms’ in 2008.

He took up the post of Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries in 2009. Based at the National Firearms Centre, his research interests are in the area of use and effect of firearms, and gun-related mythology and folklore. He has been researching so-called ‘vampire killing kits’ since 2007.

Lisa Traynor, Assistant Curator of Firearms

Lisa completed her degree in History and Museum Studies (BA, Huddersfield 2006-11), and in particular focused on the history of arms and armour 1750-1918.  She began her museum career as a volunteer at Museums Sheffield in (2007-09), whilst studying. In 2012 she joined the Visitor Experience team at Royal Armouries Leeds, devising talks for visitors on the history of firearms and the different conflicts in which they were used. She then became the Firearms Documentation Assistant at Royal Armouries in December 2012. Through documenting the former MOD collection, Lisa studied pistols in depth, noting their actions, operating systems and calibres.

She took up the post of First World War Researcher in December 2013. Along with her two colleagues she is curating ‘Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers’ a gallery exhibition telling the story of the rise of weapon technology during 1914-18. She is currently working on her paper: ‘The bullet-proof vest and the Archduke: 19th-century innovation versus 20th-century firepower’. Her research involves practical ballistic testing in order to test the claims of 19th-century inventor, Casimir Zeglen. The primary aim of this research is to assess the capabilities of a 19th-century bullet-proof vest against the FN Browning Model 1910, the model of pistol used to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The White Tower

Bridget Clifford, Keeper of the Tower Armouries

Bridget joined the National Maritime Museum after graduating in History from Manchester University in1977, having cut her museum teeth as a volunteer in her ‘local’ at Hereford. Four years later, she moved to the Armouries and the Department of Edged Weapons, spending the first year battling with ‘old Tower stock’ of the pointy kind in the Brick Tower.

Four children and 20 years part-time curating later, having worked on projects ranging from re-storage of the Armouries collections in the Tower in the mid 80s, to taking over the Tower Library and Archive in celebration of the new millennium, and several Tower exhibitions in between, she returned to full-time work as Keeper of Collections South (and library!) in September 2006.

Fort Nelson

Philip Magrath, Curator of Artillery

Philip read for an Honours Degree in History at the University of Sussex, followed soon after by a Masters Degree in Museum Studies at University College London, a Diploma in English Local History and a Further and Adult Education Teaching Certificate.

Previously employed by English Heritage and Gosport Borough Council at Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower. He joined the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson in 1991 working in various capacities and was appointed Curator of Artillery in 2001.

Nicholas Hall, Keeper of Artillery

Nicholas read History of Art at the Courtauld Institute, London and joined the then Tower Armouries in 1972. He was fortunate to be mentored by Howard Blackmore, Russell Robinson and Alan Borg, leading scholars in the arms & armour field and to spend valuable time in the workshop with craftsmen Ted Smith and Arthur Davies.

In 1978 Nicholas became Keeper of Metalwork at Hampshire County Museums, opening a community museum in Havant. When the County bought Fort Nelson, a derelict Ancient Monument, he was asked to help decide its future. The Fort was restored and eventually became the Royal Armouries’ artillery museum. In 1988 Nicholas re-joined the Royal Armouries to develop Fort Nelson and prepare the museum displays for opening in 1995. The use of historic artillery became a particular interest, involving participation in TV programmes and consultancy on behalf of the museum.

Our curators will be available between 10am and 1pm and 3pm and 5pm to take your questions. All you have to do is tweet your questions to @Royal_Armouries or @Fort_Nelson and a curator will respond. If it is a complex question about the collection it may take a little time to research and respond, but we will certainly try and get back to you as soon as possible!

To find out more about this event please visit www.mardixon.com

Landings

Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson will mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings by showcasing the work of Portsmouth photographer Russell Squires in a new Inspired by… exhibition, Landings.

Russell talks to us about his inspiration behind the exhibition and the importance of capturing significant, ever-changing landscapes.

Can you tell us a little bit about you and your background?
I have always had an interest in photography and design; however I chose work over college so this creative pathway was not developed until I started university a little later. Through Higher Education study, I also gained a love for education and helping others; so being able to work at the university where I studied was just a fantastic opportunity, where each day does not really feel like work.

Photographer Russell Squires

Photographer Russell Squires

What was your Inspiration for the work / why do you think it’s important to photograph these locations?
I was not deeply inspired as such to create this series; the work came about through a chance to visit the sites. However, it was not until I was there that I felt more strongly about the locations and wanted to capture how I saw the landscape. I think it is always important to capture and document our landscape as it is forever changing, and more so with these sites as some people may never visit or are unaware of their history.

What has been your most poignant image to capture?
I do not have a favourite image, but a couple of the scenes exhibit an almost timeless quality where you could almost imagine the possible events from D-Day.

Was there an image that was the hardest/most challenging to capture?
Out of the set there was no one particular challenging shot, I feel that perhaps the entirety of the series was challenging, as I had no clear vision of what I wanted to say with the work. The process of capturing the scenes was technically methodical, yet compositionally I approached them quite organically.

Utah-02

How do you feel about having your work displayed at Fort Nelson?
I feel extremely honoured that my work was considered and chosen to be exhibited at Fort Nelson as it is a great historical and educational establishment. The works subject matter is suited very well to the museum, which is complimented by the surrounding exhibits.

Are there any up-coming projects you are working on that you would like to mention?
I’m half Scottish and I am looking into commencing a landscape documentary on the Anglo-Scottish border, I am aiming to photograph the length of the border whilst having 50% of the frame in England and the other 50% in Scotland.

Blogger: Russell Squires, Photographer

The exhibition runs from 1 June to 13 October 2014 as part of the Royal Armouries’ Inspired By programme – an initiative which harnesses the talents of community groups and individuals and invites them to represent the museum’s national collections in exciting and innovative ways. For more information about our Inspired by… programme visit our website.

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 Survival of the Biggest…

Keeper of Artillery, Nicholas Hall tells us how the British Army’s biggest gun survived from 1918 until today and why its arrival at Fort Nelson was the highlight of his career.

I heard about the existence of a British railway gun sometime in the late 1980s, whilst development of the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson was underway. Luckily for me, the Ordnance Society arranged a visit to the artillery ranges at Shoeburyness, Essex, in 1989. A highlight was viewing the last British railway gun to survive – the mighty 18-inch Railway Howitzer. Although no longer used for trials, it was maintained in excellent order as an ‘asset’. Little did I know that one day it would come to Fort Nelson.

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

But after my trip to Shoeburyness, I never forgot about it and wondered what would happen to the 180-tonne gun when the New Ranges were rationalised. It was transferred to the Royal Artillery Historical Trust and displayed near the Royal Artillery Museum at the Rotunda, Woolwich. When the Artillery Museum moved into the old Royal Arsenal, the Railway Howitzer was taken to Larkhill, the Royal Artillery’s new HQ. It was safe at Larkhill but it was rather tucked away, even from those on site. Before travelling to Fort Nelson, it had formed the exhibition centrepiece at the Het Spoorwegmuseum (Dutch Railway Museum) in Utrecht.

The First World War ended before any 18-inch Howitzers were ready, but four were completed soon afterwards.

Some were used for testing purposes on artillery ranges and one had a new lease of life in the Second World War – serving on a railway line in Kent, in readiness to blast the beaches if a German invasion force landed. Each 18-inch shell weighed about a ton but the howitzer was never fired in anger as the feared invasion never occurred.

Seeing the gun’s arrival at Fort Nelson has to be one of the most exciting days of my career and I am thrilled that we have it here for the First World War Centenary next year.

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of 65 Works Group 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers [Railway Infrastructure]  [CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of members from the 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Railway Infrastructure) 
[CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Nicholas Hall, Keeper of Artillery, Fort Nelson

For more information about the arrival of the 18-inch Railway Howitzer at Fort Nelson, read the press release.

The Last Stand Opens, as a Landmark is Lost…

Photographer Marc Wilson, talks about the opening of The Last Stand and the importance of his project, after the loss of one his photographed locations.

Last week the first solo show of my photographic exhibition, The Last Stand, opened at The Royal Armouries Museum, Fort Nelson, focusing on some of the last physical remnants of war in the 20th century – the remaining military defence structures.

On show are 20 prints and remaining photos from the series are displayed on a screen. A morning of interviews for local press and arts magazines was followed by a very successful Private View in the evening.

The guest list was compiled by the Royal Armouries and myself, and included a Deputy Mayor, a serving British Army Major on leave from Afghanistan, Second World War veterans, the family of those who supplied war memoirs and contributors to and followers of my work.

Upon leaving the show, I was made aware that the remaining defences had been pulled apart and removed by the local authorities at Wissant in Northern France, one of the locations where I took photographs.  This happened in just the past few weeks.

The defences in the image you see below, having stood for over 70 years, no longer exist.

Wissant I,  Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France. 2012  Credit: Marc Wilson

Wissant I, Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France. 2012
Credit: Marc Wilson

I believe the reasons given were that they were a danger to the public. This has sparked a huge debate as to whether these defences in France, built by the occupying German army, many on the back of slave labour, should be removed or kept in place, as a reminder of histories past, and perhaps a warning for the future.

My personal view is that to erase the visual reminders of the past is wrong – although of course, as a photographer, my job is to set up and show the story and history, so as to let others then discuss the past, present and future.

What is does mean though is that a modern day precedent has been set and this may now occur at other locations along the northern and western coastlines of France. There is also talk of similar in Denmark. For me this means I need to embark upon the second stage of photography for the work as soon as possible. I thought I had years to complete the project – that may no longer be the case. I am hoping to raise funds through prints sales over the next month to allow me to do so.

Blogger: Marc Wilson

You can read more details on Marc’s website.

The Last Stand is on display at Fort Nelson until 1 October 2013.

Get involved
Do you have a place, which holds memories that have now been abandoned or destroyed? Are you a serving soldier that has left behind a base you called home whilst serving abroad? Did you document these places at the time or now they are gone? If so, we would love you to share them with us online. Tweet us at @Royal_Armouries using #LostLocations or post on our facebook page.

The Last Stand

We spoke to photographer and Terry O’Neill award winner Marc Wilson, to find out more about The Last Stand exhibition, which opens at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson on Friday, 3 May.

What was your Inspiration for the work?
Initially the project came out of a small body of work called Abandoned that I created in 2003. This project included some military locations – from these I realised the importance of the subject matter and I felt I needed to produce a piece of work about it. Many locations have been documented before in some form or another but I wanted to approach it in my own way, and in doing so not only look at the objects themselves, but their place in the shifting landscape over time. Most importantly of all, I wanted to set up a dialogue and hopefully prompt the viewer to reflect on the histories and memories associated with these places.

Like many people today, I have some connection to the two world wars. My grandfather had been in the Navy in the First World War and whilst I did have a relative flying with the RAF during WW2, the main connection was with one side of my family being caught up in the horrors unfolding in Europe. Perhaps, in some ways, this project is my response to that.

© Marc Wilson

© Marc Wilson

What has been your favourite location to capture?
I’ve been asked that a few times and it’s so hard to answer. I love the process of photography and I have enjoyed the experience of the journeys and taking pictures at these locations where the landscapes are quite breathtaking. But then at the same time, whilst I strive to produce visually beautiful images, the subject matter at these locations is so dark that the ‘enjoyable’ elements pale away. An odd feeling really.

As for a ‘favourite’ to photograph, the dunes at Newburgh, north of Aberdeen, come to mind. I was 600 miles away from home, up at 4am, and I had to climb out of the hotel bar window as the front door was locked. It was a wonderful hour’s walk through the dunes in the rising light and sea mist before I was greeted with the scene you see in the images in the exhibition. It was then a slow walk back along the beach as the sea mist slowly melted away, back to the hotel for breakfast and an explanation for the open bar window!

© Marc Wilson

© Marc Wilson

What was the hardest image to capture?
The hardest, physically, was probably the image at the Dengie peninsula in Essex. It was another 4am start, followed by a one-hour cycle to the location, over a muddy grass levee in the rain, with my large format camera, tripod and umbrella on my back. I then stood in the rain for an hour waiting for it to stop, which it did eventually. I set up, shot the image and then cycled back with heavier legs and over muddier grass. The trip to Northern France and Belgium was also hard with 10 days of ferry journeys, late afternoon recces, 4am starts and daytime driving to the next location, with evenings of unloading and loading darkslides in neon motels, and four trips up and down the northern coast chasing the light.

© Marc Wilson

© Marc Wilson

What has it been like to photograph such poignant locations?
I photographed in the South West of England – this location had been recced on a previous visit and so I knew the time of day, direction, amount of sun and height of the tides I needed for the shot.

Yet still this image required over 280 miles and five hours of driving, followed by three hours in place, with the camera set up, waiting for the perfect combination of light and tides.

The image you will see in the exhibition was made at Torcross, nearby Slapton Sands. Some of you may be familiar with the military history of this location but for those that are not, it was used as a training ground for the D-Day landings due to its similarity to the coastline and conditions in Normandy, France. The local villages had all been emptied of the residents and the troops had moved in.

In April 1944, during Exercise Tiger, the three-mile-long convoy of vessels on their way to the exercises was attacked by nine German torpedo boats.  Two tank-landing ships were sunk, with the loss of 749 American servicemen. Over 1,000 lives were lost during the exercise.

It is a beautiful and peaceful place, and as I now stand in these locations, I am so engrossed in the photographic process that I can at times forget these histories. As soon as I stop though, and begin to pack away the camera, they all flood in, these mass casualties of war, associated with the histories and memories of these sites I am photographing. My imagination though can only scratch at the surface of the reality of these events.

For more information about The Last Stand, visit our website.

Do you have a place, which holds memories that has now been abandoned or destroyed? Are you a serving soldier that has left behind a base you called home whilst serving abroad? Did you document these places at the time or now they are gone? If so, we would love you to share them with us online. Tweet us at @Royal_Armouries using #LostLocations or post on our facebook page.

Supergun Moves into Place

In the Royal Armouries collection are sections of one of the most infamous pieces of 20th Century artillery – the Iraqi Supergun. We have two sections of the barrel, weighing 2.1 tonnes, which have been the next objects moving into The Voice of the Guns gallery at Fort Nelson.

Development of the Iraqi weapon remains shrouded in secrecy – along with the murder of its inventor – but if all the tubes had been fully assembled the Supergun would have stretched over 150 metres and would have been able to send projectiles into a low orbit.

Inside the Iraqi Supergun

Inside the Iraqi Supergun

British Customs’ officers seized eight sections of the gun in March 1990 at Teesport Docks – as part of a consignment en route to Iraq.  Allowing the Bahamas-registered vessel to sail with its consignment would have contravened a ban on arms sales to Saddam Hussein’s state. Investigations revealed the gun was part of Saddam’s  “Project Babylon”.

If assembled, the gun would have been the biggest gun in the modern world. The weapon was the brainchild of Canadian Dr Gerald Bull, who was assassinated shortly before the parts were discovered.