It's a sad irony that like the history it documents, the Royal Armouries has had a tumultuous time of it in the last 15 years or so. The decision in the early 1990s to move the bulk of the UK's oldest museum's collection up north was controversial, with critics panning Leeds as 'off the beaten track' for tourists. Still, the £43m new project went ahead, financed by a public-private sector partnership between Royal Armouries (International) plc and the Department of Culture – an initiative designed to shift the financial risks of the venture to the private sector.
"With knife and gun crime rarely out of the news, what place does a museum that celebrates weaponry have on our cultural map?"
The Royal Armouries Leeds opened in March 1996. Unsurprisingly given the £6.95 admission price and the pre-development Clarence Dock location, the visitor figures were well below those projected and the museum ran into serious trouble, unable to covers its operating costs or debts. The Department of Media, Culture and Sport was forced to step in to ensure its future, bailing out Royal Armouries (International) plc to the tune of £10m in 1999 – and sparking criticism of the original financial arrangement.
The museum received a significant boost when the government abolished museum entrance fees in 2001. Visitor figures increased and the targets started to seem achievable for the first time in its short history.
But why was the new museum necessary in the first place? The Royal Armouries is the country's collection of arms, armour and artillery and consists of over 70,000 items. Originally housed at the Tower of London, the Armouries expanded into a second site in Fort Nelson near Portsmouth in 1988, before deciding a third museum was needed to do the collection justice.
The purpose-built Royal Armouries Leeds displays over 8,500 items over five galleries: War, Tournament, Self Defence, Hunting and Oriental. A daily-changing roster of performances and displays such as jousting and falconry do their bit to bring the collection to life, along with interactive displays and well crafted replicas that can be handled by visitors.
While conserving and displaying the items, the Armouries has a responsibility to promote an understanding of them and contextualise them. The danger with displaying thousands of swords, guns, daggers and crossbows in glass cases is that they lose their humanistic angle. They were used to harm, kill or maim – but risk being merely presented as weapons of old which are easily browsed through without thought for their function.
It takes the gallery hosts and tour guides to give meaning to the items – and they do so with impressive expertise. Did you know that Middle Eastern Muslim soldiers wore armour suits made of rings,
each inscribed with passages from the Koran? And that these only protected the middle of the body because it was not the fear of death that concerned them but the fear of dying slowly? Neither did this writer until a superb guide revealed these illuminating details about a particular glass case in the Oriental gallery.
But as this story and the thousands that surround the objects attests, the Armouries is essentially a museum of pain or pain prevention, yet the damage the instruments can cause is shrouded in a reverence of the objects. As a collection directly funded by the government, and an expensive one at that, the Armouries is required to justify its existence. Yet it has struggled over the years to assert itself as a forward-thinking, socially and culturally relevant museum. With knife and gun crime rarely out of the news, what place does a museum that celebrates weaponry have on our cultural map?
Responding to the current social and political climate, last year the Armouries announced a new vision to use their expertise to 'help make Britain a safe place'. They launched the NTK 'No to Knives' website which aims to get one million children to make a 'pledge against the edge'. They also commissioned an extensive report into knife crime in the UK and promoted the 'Flashpoint and Leap – Confronting Conflict' programmes which support conflict resolution training in schools.
When the NTK project launched last November, museum director, Paul Armstrong, said: “As a national museum we have a good knowledge of weaponry but we wanted to think about the objects not just as objects but what they can be used for.” About bloody time really, but the Armouries now has a precarious position of conserving, promoting and revering weapons of the past while simultaneously campaigning against the use of weapons in the present.
Their success in balancing these two contradictory roles is yet to be seen but as a light-hearted departure they have 'From Narnia to Middle Earth: Arms and Armour from the Movies' opening on 12 July. This free exhibition features weapons from Hollywood blockbusters and is guaranteed to draw in the crowds.
With the highly commendable social projects, forthcoming movie exhibition, ever improving location, and rising visitor figures, this really should be the most positive time in the Royal Armouries recent history. However, last month it was revealed that Paul Evans, Master Chief Executive of the Royal Armouries, whose post goes back to the fifteenth century, was suspended pending serious allegations regarding 'potential irregularities' in the running of the three museums. The investigations continue and staff are tight-lipped about it, but it's suffice to say that at one of the North's major visitor attractions, the drama continues.