The Royal Armouries are national museums of arms and armour and we have three in Great Britain. The first (as you might expect) is located at the Tower of London, the second at Fort Nelson in Portsmouth and the third in West Yorkshire, just a few minutes walk from Leeds city centre. With over 8,500 artefacts on display, Leeds Amouries is definitely worth a visit and it warrants a full day trip to take advantage of everything that is on offer.
The impressive museum spans 5 floors in a modern concrete and glass building in the development at Clarence Dock. On each floor is a gallery with exhibitions covering War, Tournament, Oriental, Self Defence and Hunting. The exhibits range from ornate armour, helmets and shields to paintings depicting historic battles, from fashionable Tudor armour to Japanese Samurai swords.
The Oriental collections are some of the most interesting, with a fascinating collection of arms from Malaysia and Indonesia, Borneo, Sri Lanka and the Hill Tribes of India. Perhaps the most impressive piece is an entire suit of elephant armour - apparently the only example of such in any public collection in the world and it features in the Guinness Book of Records. There is also a fascinating bijous India gallery, documenting the rise of the East India Company, Imperialism, British Rule and Westernisation in India.
One of our favourite exhibits was upstairs in the hunting section - a novelty 20th century 'vampire slaying kit' inspired by 19th Century folklore and fiction. It contains everything you might need to slay a blood-sucking beast, including rosary beads, a crucifix, a mallet, four wooden stakes and a pistol (apparently if all else fails, you can shoot a vampire.. good to know!)
Some of the exhibits were especially designed to be tactile, allowing visitors to feel what armour or uniform is like to the touch. This really enhanced our understanding of some of the artefacts and is good for involving children and those who are blind or partially sighted, too.
One of the theatrical members of the Visitor Engagement Team gives a talk
The visitor programme at Leeds Armouries is absolutely excellent, with talks and tours happening throughout the day. We attended two talks - about the evolution of armour during the English Civil War and about the kind of armour used in jousting tournaments. We were even given the opportunity to handle the weapons at the end - the blades were removed, of course, so it was safe.
The tournament talks was given by a very theatrical member of the Visitor Engagement Team who managed to deliver it flawlessly and with a great deal of energy, despite being dressed in a full suit of armour. During the summer months there is also an programme of events which takes advantage of the outdoor space for jousting and tournament events
Make Peace Not War - Painting in the 'Farewell to Arms' Gallery
Don't be mistaken in thinking that the Royal Armouries are out to promote war or to celebrate Britain's military colonial past. Lots of the exhibits are sensitively curated and are even-sided in their descriptions of various battles. Peace is advocated as preferential to war and interactive displays examine what conditions are necessary for equilibrium to exist - such as democracy and freedom of speech. Sadly, two of these were not functioning correctly on the day we visited.
Anti War Imagery in the 'Farewell to Arms' Gallery
The Armouries also dedicate the 'Farewell to Arms' gallery to anti war movements such as the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and Campaign Against Arms Trade CAAT and examine the devastating after effects of war, e.g. land mines. Meanwhile, the temporary exhibition 'Other Ranks' by sound artist Amie Slavin gives a poignant reminder of the forgotten voices of the squaddies that have made the ultimate sacrifice.
The exhibits don't just focus on dusty old artefacts - there are displays on modern warfare, including the War in Afghanistan and a thrilling display on Modern Forensics (for those CSI fans amongst us).
It's a long day getting around the entire museum, so good job there is a gift shop and a cafe on the ground floor where you can refresh. Alternatively, do what we did and pop out to a nearby pub in The Calls for a pint with your lunch.