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Royal Armouries Museum
Attractions in Leeds in general
Member Name: collingwood21
Attractions in Leeds in general
Date: 07/12/01, updated on 07/12/01 (157 review reads)
Advantages: New building, Live interpretation events, Good shop and cafe, free admission
Disadvantages: Some displays are a bit too technical for the non-specialist
The Royal Armouries are Britain’s oldest national museum, and are currently spread across three sites – the museum in Leeds, the White Tower in the Tower of London, and Fort Nelson, Portsmouth. This op concerns the largest of the sites in Leeds, which I visited last week. This location houses the bulk of the collection, minus the artillery pieces (which are in Hampshire) and those items directly relating to the history of the Tower of London. As the name implies, the museum tells the history of armour, weaponry, warfare, hunting and self-defence all from a new museum that was opened less than a decade ago.
The collections originate from the royal and national arsenal, which have been housed in the Tower of London ever since it was built. Visitors were admitted to the armouries from as early as the fifteenth century, when foreign dignitaries were given tours designed to impress them with the military might of England. Paying visitors were first allowed into the collection in 1660, when Charles II returned from exile and allowed the crown jewels and some of the grander examples of armour to be viewed – this was, in effect, the first use of the armouries as a national museum. The collections continued to grow from this time (and indeed are still added to), until it became apparent in the 1980s that the expanded stores would soon not fit solely into the Tower. In 1988, the artillery collections were moved to Fort Nelson (which opened to the public in 1995), and in 1990 the concept of having a main museum in the north of England was agreed upon. The Leeds site was chosen as part of a redevelopment package for the city, and the museum was built to a modern design there shortly afterwards.
South Leeds, just outside of the city centre. One of the major complaints to museum staff was the fact that the museum was hard to find, but new signage has recently been put up to correct this problem, so finding the
museum should now be reasonably straightforward if you are driving. Staff have also told me that it is possible to reach the museum by public transport from city centre (sorry, no bus number was given) and that an idea to put a supertram stop nearby is being considered. A location map of the site can be found at www.armouries.org.uk/leeds/findingus.html.
From the outside, this is admittedly not a very awe-inspiring vision – the building is grey and resembles an office block, and the surrounding land has not yet been tackled as part of the regeneration of this area of Leeds. However, the canal is quite attractive, and metallic grey is actually a suitable colour for an arsenal. The entrance is clearly marked, and the hall as you enter has a very modern, open and light feel about it, similar in many ways to that of the National Museum of Scotland if any of you have been there. This area includes a bistro and one of the best museum shops I have had the pleasure of visiting, neither of which were too expensive and were accessible to anyone not wishing to go further inside the museum. It is, though, one of those buildings that seems to play an architectural joke on you – there are places in it where you can see where you want to go but not how to get there! Adding a few layout plans around the place would sort this problem out though.
There are five galleries within the museum – war, tournament, oriental, self-defence and hunting – each of which is denoted by a symbol which appears on all the signs and guides to help you find what you want. The larger galleries are equipped with stages where live interpretations are acted out during the day; this is something the museum has become famous for and provide an additional way of helping you learn, as well as being entertaining. The programme changes on a daily basis, and you will be provided with a list of interpretation ev
ents for that day when you enter. I tried to see as many of these as possible, and went to the following:
- Storytelling on how the gun came to Japan
- Gallery tour led by a senior curator in the self-defence section
- A first world war munitions worker talking about the local factory
- An interpretation of the battle of Stamford Bridge by a Norwegian soldier
War gallery – situated on floor two, this has collections relating to war from earliest history right until the Gulf War. The museum has a small collection of ancient arms and armour, some medieval examples, a reconstruction of the battle of Pavia in 1525, as well as displays on more recent conflicts (ranging from Trafalgar and Waterloo, through the American Civil War to World War Two and later). There are four small cinemas in this gallery, showing films about Agincourt, Marston Moor, Sights and Sounds of War and Modern Warfare, with each film lasting about 15 minutes. As the largest gallery, this has one of the main stages where the live interpretations take place.
Tournament gallery – this is the story of medieval practice for war in courtly tournaments. Here you can learn about the three types of tournament (tournery, foot combat and jousting) and displays of combat are sometimes held here as part of the interpretation schedule (not when I went unfortunately).
Oriental gallery – containing collections of arms and armour from India, China, Japan, Turkey and Central Asia. This gallery has some amazing pieces in it, including the only example of war elephant armour on public display in the world and some incredible Samurai armour. This gallery also contains a stage for interpretation, as well as running film on Yabusame (Japanese horse archery), the Mongols and the British in India.
Self defence gallery – displays relating to the armed civilian, and how ordinary people have defended themselves over time. Exhibits relating to po
cket guns, police weaponry, fencing, the traveller abroad and the Wild West can all be found here, although this is quite a small gallery.
Hunting gallery – not quite as interesting as the other galleries in my opinion, maybe because in tried to be too moralistic while other displays remained more neutral. I didn’t spend long in here, but did see some Palaeolithic hunting tools, medieval falconry kit, a display on harpoons and dozens of cases of hunting guns and crossbows.
●Opening times and other information
The museum is open 10 – 5 Monday to Saturday
From December 1st, admission is free to all national museums, including the Royal Armouries
Phone: (0113) 220 1940
The museum also runs an education service (for school children to adults) and a library relating to the collections and their history. For more information on these services, phone (0113) 220 1832.
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