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Royal Armouries Voices: Brittany and Tom

Royal Armouries Voices is a new series talking to our colleagues at Leeds, Fort Nelson, and the Tower of London about their experiences working with one of the world’s largest and most important collections of arms and armour. Their answers were recorded and transcribed for publication below.

Museum assistants Tom and Brittany stand in from of an armored horse and knight display

Brittany Ouldcott and Tom Davies are Royal Armouries museum assistants. Often, they are the first point of contact for members of the public visiting our museum in Leeds. They interact with the public, discussing and educating them about our collection. They also make sure our galleries are safe spaces for visitors. Their enthusiasm for heritage and history is palpable when you first meet them. Even before the recording equipment was set up they were explaining the story behind the items we were standing next to. For this short interview, I spent some time with them walking around our galleries. I was interested to learn what our members of staff who spend the most time amongst the gallery objects think of them.

We start in the oriental gallery on the fifth floor.

What is your favourite gallery in the Royal Armouries Museum?

Tom: “The oriental gallery is my favourite gallery because it covers such a diverse range of stuff. Our collection has so many different cultures on display together that it’s one the of best places for this kind of stuff in the country, and it’s a chance to delve into some of the cultures that we don’t often get to experience in our daily lives. In a world that’s becoming more drawn together and more globalised, the more we learn about the history of the rest of the world the more we can appreciate each others cultural heritage.”

Brittany: “Also the oriental gallery’s layout is stunning. The Royal Armouries Museum was custom built to house this collection and as such floors 4 and 2 have about 20-foot ceilings so we can house objects like the war elephant armour and 18-foot pikes can be properly stored. The oriental gallery also has some eastern-style architectural features that puts this collection in context and frames ‘where we are in the world’ when we walk around the gallery and creates a lovely environment for the museum. On floor five, the gallery has one of the best views of the canal and the city, especially if you are here on a night event and you get to see the whole area lit up.”

We walk around floor five for a few minutes, taking in the view. Both Tom and Brittany energetically describe the collection we pass. They give insights to the objects I’ve walked past before but only given a cursory glance. I have to interrupt their tour to get in my next question.

Why did you both want to work for the Royal Armouries?

Tom: “I think we’ve both got a similar story. We both have heritage-related degrees.”

Brittany: “Yeah, mine is in archaeology, that I finished this August, and I did my undergraduate dissertation on some of the museum’s collection, specifically the Walpurgis Manuscript [Tower fechtbuch I.33], which we are very fortunate to hold in our archives, and is one of my favourite pieces of primary source material. This gave me an introduction to the Royal Armouries as a museum.”

Tom: “Yeah same for me, my dissertation was on modern media’s use of history. Coming to work on the front line of a place where the public interacts with the past, and with the Royal Armouries having one of the best collections of historical objects in the world, is pretty cool.”

We leave the fifth floor, and descend one level to the main floor of the oriental gallery. It’s dimmer here than on the fifth floor, the lights are kept low to preserve the fabric. This gives the gallery a certain ambience. We walk towards Tom’s favourite object, the famous elephant armour. Before I can even ask him why it’s his favourite thing in the museum he starts talking about it.

museum assistant in front of the elephant Armour

Tom points enthusiastically at his favourite object

Tom: “It’s no surprise that this would be my favourite items. It’s one of the most important items we have, being one of the most complete armours of its type on public display.”

Brittany: “I think it’s the only one on public display.”

Brittany and Tom spend several minutes discussing various elephant armours around the world and how they compare to the Royal Armouries’ example. They conclude that ours is pretty great.

Tom: “It’s also really interesting to me, as it’s a symbol of the bond between man and animal. Elephants would take ten to twenty years to train to be competent in battle, so protecting them was important. The armour itself is all hand made, each link being put together by hand, and the result is awe-inspiring to look at.”

Brittany: “It is. I see visitors walk through the archway into the gallery and come face to face with it and just be stunned.”

Tom: “I’ve had multiple children ask me ‘Is it really armour?’ to which I say, ‘of course, it’s really armour!’ If it wasn’t this size it wouldn’t fit the elephant.”

Brittany: “I’ve had people ask me if it’s a taxidermied elephant, which it’s not, and in fact, a taxidermied elephant would not withstand the weight of the object for any length of time.”

Brittany and Tom start another discussion about the exact weight (130 kg after looking on our collection website). This leads us to a chat about misconceptions of armour being shown as overly heavy in films. Tom then shows us to a piece of cloth armour from 18th-century Mughal India to make his point.

Tom: “This [cloth] armour has been here since I started but only recently has been re-lit with white light [LED], so it’s no longer kept in as low light to preserve it. In hot continents warriors used cloth armour that gave a balance between protection and weight. The new lighting lets you see in great detail the patterns and designs, and the artistry on it is sublime.”

Brittany’s favourite gallery

We take the lift down to the war gallery to look at the English Civil War area. On the way Brittany shows us some of the prehistoric objects we have.

Brittany: “From the prehistoric era, we have several items here. Some bronze axe heads, a sling stone, and also a stone arrowhead. I had a go at chipping an arrowhead like this. It’s actually very skilled, we broke our arrowheads each time.”

We enter the war gallery. Brittany explains why for her the English Civil War area is one of the most interesting areas.

 

A museum assistant in front of a display

A display of English Civil War swords and helmet is a favourite of Brittany’s

Brittany: “Being an English museum the English Civil War is a very important period in our history, and also a great example of how war is not mindless conflict, but actually changes how our society works and draws a lot of parallels even today. The cuirassier’s armour shows a direct link back to the Tudor armour styles but becomes more practical over time. We also see this evolution in swords that drastically change over this period. Both rapiers and back swords with basket hilts diverge in style but keep the same protective feature of the defensive hilts. This feeds into armour evolution,  the removal of gauntlets because hand protection is present on the weapon itself.”

Due to time and battery limitations, I had to stop recording them. I have no doubt that if I had let them they would have kept talking for most of the afternoon. I thanked them for their time and left. My intention was for them to talk about their experiences at the museum, but both had been far more interested in discussing the collection and objects.

Brittany and Tom had been so interesting that I had failed in my duties as an interviewer. I left with less knowledge of their roles at the museum, but was instead impressed by their passion for history.

I highly recommend that when you visit our museum you engage with my colleagues in the galleries. They will be more than happy to discuss and explain what you are looking at.

Come back soon for more articles about life at the Royal Armouries. Make sure to follow our social media channels so you don’t miss our next article.

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