I visited the Royal Armouries in Leeds when I was very young and have a vague recollection of jousting. My main memory is the symbol for the Leeds Royal Armouries that peppers the brown signposts around the ring road, pointing you in the right direction. As a child I always found it a pretty creepy looking symbol, like a leering skull in Victorian teacher-style clip on glasses, oh and rams horns. Surely the stuff of nightmares.
Obviously I had a child’s memory of this horror – and for once it was pretty accurate. The helmet in question is pretty grotesque, but the craftsmanship it incredibly impressive. It is in fact thought to be the representation of a fool rather than a skull, with gapped teeth a dripping nose, glasses and rams horns. It’s a key object in the Tournament gallery, displayed on a spinning plinth it inspects a 360 degree view of the room as it rotates. It’s brilliant.
Now I’m not too excited about war and weapons, but I loved this museum. One of the first rooms you come to this the Hall of Steel, which actually doubles up as the centre of the staircase that you take from the ground floor. The walls of this small, but very tall room are decorated with an array of armour, presented in pleasing patterns. You can crane your neck to look up at this display, or you can look into the cleverly directed mirrors in the stairwell and see the reflection of the walls above. The curatorial side of me did think, ‘that must be a nightmare to clean . . . I wonder if they get scaffolding’, but it is very impressive regardless of boring practicalities.
The galleries themselves are brilliantly designed. Each one has a designated space for performances, giving the public the opportunity to see living history displays. There are also displays that are like 3D panoramas, detailed to the extent that I’m pretty convinced that this museum might come to life at night. The War Elephant is an excellent example, I’m imagining it in a ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ style armoury resurrection.
The War gallery follows the development of weapons and warfare from the ancient world to the 20th century, focusing on a number of famous battles along the way. The battle of Agincourt is represented by a large model of the battle field, featuring over 4,400 bespoke miniature figures . . . pretty impressive, but that’s not all. Around the edge of this scene are key descriptions of parts of the battle, but also little windows that you can look down and see the perspective from the battlefield itself, giving you the ability to have both a birds eye, as well as an on the ground view. In other parts of the gallery the odd square TV’s which all seemed to be showing quite old fashioned footage helped to break up the space, adding an audio-visual element which caught the eye with its quirkiness.
I am of the belief that much of museum signage is just too boring for the public to engage with. Possibly a controversial concept, but if a sign is different from the norm, I think you’re more likely to look at it – and even take a photo. It takes something quirky to break the mould and actually be engaging. The Royal Armouries did not disappoint, with a personalised ‘out of order sign’ and directions to staircases – I was left grinning, and I took photos for social media = good signage.
The whole museum is an excellent union of modern concrete and old steel, oh and beautiful glass cases that often extended all the way to the floor providing an excellent view point for children as well as adults. I for one was not too scared of the famous fool helmet not to make a trip back.