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Ancient arms in a modern home

Diane Spencer reports on the controversial new Royal Armouries Museum to be opened in Leeds today

When the Queen opens the Royal Armouries Museum today she will see a remarkable building rising from northern industrial wasteland housing one of the world's finest collection of arms and armour.

It is a most controversial museum, not only because it moved the vast bulk of the 600-year old collection from The Tower of London, but also because it is the first to be built under the Government's Private Finance Initiative. From its inception six years ago the plan has faced a barrage of criticism from traditionalists who wanted the entire collection to remain in the Tower where only a tenth could be shown.

They also saw Guy Wilson, Master of the Armouries, as a victim of a long-running feud between the managers of the Tower, now the Government agency, Historic Royal Palaces, and the Royal Armouries. Critics also feared that the new museum would be a kind of Alton Towers theme park, and not a place for serious scholars.

True, it does have a menagerie, a tilt-yard, cinemas, computer interactive screens, life-size models of men and animals, shooting galleries and actor-interpreters but it is not a Jorvik Centre or a Disneyland.

"I came to mock, but I stayed to pray," commented Anthony North, curator in the metalwork department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a leading expert on arms and armour.

He was impressed by the architecture, the way the objects have been displayed and the didactic approach to the collections. There are five main galleries on the themes of war, tournament, self-defence, hunting and the Orient. A spectacular eight-storey "hall of steel" where 3,000 objects - pikes, breastplates, guns, axes - are displayed on the walls surrounded by a glass-plated staircase which will be lit at night creating a landmark in the city, is the building's main architectural feature.

Last week, eight days before the Queen's visit, the massive site was a frenzy of activity. Workmen were finishing galleries, laying herbacious borders and carpets, razing ground; curators were placing objects in cases, assembling suits of armour, piecing elephants together; interpreters were researching roles, learning lines, trying out costumes, practising sword fights: "We are enjoying it," said Mr Wilson.

The museum will not be finished completely in time for the public opening on March 30, he acknow-ledged, but a substantial amount will be ready. Mr Wilson was instrumental in creating the museum which he says will provide layers and levels of interest for all ages.

The free-flow galleries where visitors can view whatever takes their fancy in whatever order, owe more to the 19th century museum tradition than the 20th, he said.

Each gallery has at least one area for screening short films introducing the history of the exhibits and the mezzanine galleries house computer displays where visitors can follow the action in the Boer War or construct their own suit of armour. The war gallery's mezzanine also has a war-games table and large screen for explaining battles and tactics. "I want to encourage us all to do short lunchtime lectures."

At a less formal level, interpreters, story-tellers and puppeteers will bring the objects to life. Mr Wilson had just spent the morning interviewing candidates: "I've already been attacked by an emu."

On the more structured side, the museum will be opening its education department with two lecture theatres, a reception area for young children and art studio in May. Glossy brochures have already gone out to 10,000 schools and teachers will be invited to four familiarisation days in April.

Annabel Wiger, the education officer, aims to get 35,000 children into the centre in the school year. Bookings are already coming in from as far afield as Scotland, Wales, Bedford and Cornwall. "I expect to get more once we open and teachers see what we can offer," she said:"They are fussy, and rightly so. We want to meet their expectations."

Schools can choose to teach classes themselves after in-service training from museum staff, let the centre's or gallery staff do it or allow pupils to explore the museum on their own.

Visits are geared to the national curriculum but "experience in a museum should be beyond prescription- it should be education that defies a stereotype, " said Ms Wiger. "We want to do more than give them a narrative of the past."

Children will be able to handle helmets, armour, swords and jewellery in a three-dimensional approach to learning, she said.

Ms Wigar is already encouraging the local community to visit the museum, based on her experience at the Tower, with the help of an outreach officer sponsored by British Telecom.

There's as diverse a population around Leeds as there is in London, she observed.

"I'm very proud of the education programme - but we're all busking it at the moment," she added, referring to the incomplete building and a shortage of staff. But she agreed with the Master, who said: "It's a great adventure - it's got to be."

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