Behind the scenes as the Royal Armouries at the Tower prepare for Christmas, by keeper of Tower Armouries Bridget Clifford.
‘Tis the season when Santa’s little elves are packing as if their lives depended on it – and museum curators are not immune from the bug. In the Royal Armouries case, the jewel that is the ‘Battle of Agincourt‘ exhibition will close on 31st January 2016 and the unique assemblage of objects, archive material and books will depart back to their parent organisations never to meet again. In October a new interactive gallery will re -occupy the vacated space, but in the interim the Tower Armouries has a chance to display some of its more quirky pieces which usually lurk in the furthermost corners of its reserve collections and rarely see the light of day.
As the oldest visitor attraction in the world and heir to the Office of Ordnance stores and traditions, the Royal Armouries has collected a wealth of curious objects through the centuries. Unfortunately rather than telling a joined up story, more often than not they present a patchwork quilt of Ordnance history and interests. One gets the distinct impression that some objects found a home in these stores because no one else knew quite what to do with them.
The sinking of the Royal George in 1782 while undergoing routine maintenance cost over 800 lives.
Exhibitions do not display themselves – a lot of behind the scenes work has to go on before the public are invited to view. Currently we are unable to make mounts on site at the Tower, so the objects have got to go to the museum in Leeds to be fitted up for their mounts with both then returning to the Tower. This has posed quite a prickly problem for the curators on site, as everything has to be packed securely – both for their own and everyone else’s safety. Despite our best hopes, the blue fairy failed to materialise and magic it all done, so we found ourselves cast in the role of Santa’s helpers.
I must say, the wrapping paper left something to be desired – very plain and a bit bobbly –and much ingenuity was required to render some of the pieces travelling North less lethal. My favourite was the Killer Chrysanthemum – a vaguely floral number constructed from the tips of old socket-bayonet blades. No matter how much packing we arranged around this deadly bloom, we still managed to find a spike.
Meanwhile, Tower curator Malcolm Mercer turned out to be a dab hand with masking tape, securing errant tissue snakes before they uncoiled and slid off the objects they were supposed to be protecting. His dexterity with the gibbet – a two- parter with decided wriggle – will be the talk of the Tower for some time to come.
The gibbet before – with supporting elf lurking…
…and after – tamed and now with over excited elf to one side.
We are also very proud of the swine’s feathers also known as brandistocks – transformed from a mid-17th Century spikey number into a workmanlike (and blunt) paddle through the magic of bubble wrap and tissue, with a stiffener of plastazote. What the colonists of Virginia made of these strange 3-pronged staff weapons when 1,500 of “the best swynnes ffeathers” were produced by the Board of Ordnance from stores in October 1676 to equip the military expedition sent there is not recorded, but this is probably their the last military issue. They remained among the stores in America “left att Virginia as a standing Trayn & Magazine and nott to be returned againe for England” and one wonders if they were put to a more domestic use and helped foster local enthusiasm for spit-roast barbeques? (For more information on this episode of American history, see Geoffrey Parnell’s article “The Artillery Train Sent to Virginia in 1676” in Man at Arms (vol 17, no 2)March/ April 1995 pp 10-17).
Finally everything was packed, and the majority of items cocooned in a flight case for their trip. Certainly a Christmas delivery with a difference, and Malcolm and I will find present wrapping 2015 a doddle in comparison.