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.

A Day in the Life of…Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

Assistant Curator, Natasha Bennett talks climbing in cases, eccentric colleagues, being alone with the collection and why she loves her job, as we speak to her about her role as part of #MuseumWeek.

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator - Oriental Collections

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

My primary function as Assistant Curator is to help safeguard, present and develop specialist knowledge about the Royal Armouries’ Oriental Collection. My role is very varied! It involves researching, writing and delivering publications, exhibition content, seminars and talks; answering enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions; supervising visitors who need access to the study collections or help with identifying objects; assisting with filming projects; helping with various collections management duties such as auditing or couriering loan objects, and participating in the acquisitions process which allows the Royal Armouries to bring new pieces into the collection.

When I left school, I did a history degree at the University of Durham, before taking jobs first as a librarian and then as an editorial/publishing assistant. I didn’t feel suited to either of those careers, so I ultimately took the plunge, returned to university and pursued an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds, with the aim of improving my qualifications for the field in which I really wanted to work. Three years ago my dream job of working for the Oriental section of the curatorial department here at the Royal Armouries appeared on the website. I never dreamed that I would be successful with my application, but here I am, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I can genuinely say that I love my job.

There is no normal day for me. The ability to work flexibly is a key part of this job, in more ways than one. I usually start the day at my desk by working through emails and enquiries that have come through, but by home time I can be anywhere; up a stepladder with the elephant armour in the Oriental Gallery or climbing into a case to replace objects that have been temporarily removed for filming or research. One of the weirdest places I ended up was near the lofty ceiling of the loading bay while I was being trained to drive a ‘mobile elevated work platform’ – thankfully that was an abnormal day…

The Royal Armouries houses the national collection of arms and armour, which means that the objects we get to work with every day are literally priceless, and the events, experiences, skills and artistry connected with each piece are legion. Every time I touch one, I feel a frisson of excitement thinking about where it has been over time. Being in stores by yourself can feel quite peculiar, because the heritage that the collection carries with it, is almost a palpable presence. I am also very lucky to work with some fantastic (if slightly eccentric) colleagues – but an interesting collection will always attract interesting people!

For me, the main challenge of my role is packing in enough research about an enormously wide-ranging subject area. Here at the Royal Armouries, the Oriental Collection incorporates all non-European arms and armour, which obviously covers quite a lot of the world! But at the same time that is also the most exciting thing about my work, because there is always something new to learn or discover, and it never gets stale.

One of the main projects I am working on at the moment is a set of conference proceedings. I am currently gathering together all the material from eight papers that were given at our conference East Meets West: Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia at the Tower of London last September. We are hoping to publish these proceedings in the near future.

17th century Mughal dagger  © Royal Armouries

17th century Mughal dagger
© Royal Armouries

I have a great number of favourite items within the collection, and they tend to change or increase in number, depending on what I’m working on at the time. One of my all-time favourites is our 17th century Mughal dagger with a watered-steel blade and a stunning hilt beautifully carved in the shape of a horse’s head. It is the only example that we know of with a hilt that is probably made out of serpentine.

Blogger: Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

Elemental, my dear Watson!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogger: Ellie Rowley-Conwy, Conservator

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.

Royal Armouries Collections

The Royal Armouries collection consists of some 70,000 examples of arms, armour and artillery dating from antiquity to the present day. It includes royal armours of the Tudor and Stuart kings; arms and armour of the English Civil Wars, including the Armoury from Littlecote House; British and foreign military weapons from the Board of Ordnance and MOD Pattern Room collections; hunting and sporting weapons, as well as an exceptional collection of oriental arms and armour.

The Royal Armouries also has a significant collection of fine and decorative arts, and a special collection of material relating to the Tower of London, including antique prints and drawings, paintings, early photographs, stereoscopes and lantern slides, and rare books.

The Royal Armouries library contains material relating to the history, development and use of arms, armour, artillery and fortifications, and to the Tower of London.

It has special collections of original military manuals, drill books, and fencing manuals. The collection amounts to some 30,000 books and pamphlets, 10,000 journals and magazines, and 6,000 auction sales catalogues.

There is a large Picture Library containing some 70,000 images of objects in the collection, which are available for purchase and reproduction. The Archives contains records relating to the Museum, collections of research material from scholars such as Sir James Mann and Howard Blackmore, as well as the records of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.

Why not use our online collection database to view 40,000 of these records?