Cast-iron guarantee of success

5th April 1996 at 01:00
At a loss for the Easter break? Let The TES help with a two-page guide through the latest museum exhibitions - from a polished display of armoury in Leeds to Victoria and Albert's home-from-home on the Isle of Wight. The words armour and dullness are too often synonymous with museums. Suits of armour and assorted pieces of weaponry seem designed not only to defeat enemies, but also the best attempts to display them to advantage.

At the new Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, the challenge has been met in a style that entirely vindicates the controversial decision to locate an enormous collection of arms and armaments outside London. Housed in a vast building, purpose-built for Pounds 42.5 million, the museum's five main galleries are devoted to war, tournament, self-defence, hunting and the Orient. Each offers not only the traditional static displays, but also interactive computer games, films, live demonstrations and object-handling sessions. In short, an abundance of exciting educational opportunities.

The more obvious of these can, arguably, be found in the war gallery. Entry is through a room hung with recruiting posters and portraits of past military heroes such as Douglas Bader, Rommel and T E Lawrence. Stirring martial music fills the air; all very romantic and, as visitors soon realise, altogether misleading.

Devoted to war and its concomitant horrors, the remainder of this sizeable area takes visitors from the earliest tribal feuds to the most recent wars within and between nations.

Different media complement each other - in each of the galleries. An original film on the Battle of Agincourt, for example, explains fully a static display of armour and weapons used in the encounter - ideal background material for students, say, reading Henry V.

Those studying the relevant period will appreciate an audio-visual analysis of the Battle of Waterloo in which sections of a remarkable, five metre-long model of the battlefield are illuminated when described.

Of the many magnificent tableaux, one will remain long in the minds of students studying the poetry or politics of the First World War. Against a background of jaunty marching songs and a muddy panorama incorporating contemporary film of the conflict, the figure of a machine-gunner, gas-masked and caked with mud, points his weapon at the onlooker. At and near his feet are empty cartridge cases, bits of barbed wire and, horribly, a hand sticking out of the glutinous earth.

Television monitors at various points in the gallery show loop tapes of films on subjects as varied as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the evolution of the cavalry sword, or the 1879 Battle of Rorke's Drift in South Africa (with scenes adapted from the feature film Zulu). These again help put into context linked displays of weapons, maps, pictures and uniforms. In several places, computerised war games relate to the main exhibits.

It is all very enjoyable and, of course, instructive. But no more so than in the other galleries. Teachers concerned with the Middle Ages, or with the reign of Henry VIII, will find much for their students in the bright and airy tournament gallery, not least regular re-enactments of deadly battles between armoured adversaries in a foot combat ring.

The museum features several such demonstrations, including performances of jousting in an outside tiltyard (afterwards the actors allow questions and offer their weapons and armour for closer examination). There's outdoor archery and falconry too. Not that the tournament gallery is all blood and thunder. At one end of the hall, twin videos detail the development of the major types of tournament fighting, and at the opposite end visitors can examine suits of armour made for Henry VIII.

These are precisely the kind of exhibits that in too many other museums merit a glance, a few lines of "Any Old Iron", and a swift exit. Here, as with other like exhibits, a first-rate film forestalls metal fatigue by telling of the historical significance and design features of both pieces.

These items make an interesting contrast with their equivalents in the Orient gallery, a subtly-lit space decorated in Moorish style. Dominated by an enormous model of an armour-clad Indian elephant, the rooms hold exquisite examples of art put to grim purpose: swords and daggers beautifully embossed and engraved, delicately-embroidered silk coverings for Chinese armour and, most notable of all, two vivid but intimidating suits presented to King James I in 1613 by the great Japanese shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

There is action here too. The centre of the gallery is taken up with a Japanese dojo (gymnasium) where, against appropriate backdrops, actors and athletes demonstrate oriental martial art, a duel in an 18th century wooded glade, or a sword fight in 16th century Verona - unmissable for anyone reading Romeo and Juliet. In each case, participants explain the social significance of the different forms of combat, taking care to distinguish between myth and authenticated practice.

The self-defence and hunting galleries were incomplete when I visited. However, a peep into the first - with its rogues' gallery, display cases filled with wicked-looking weapons, and a moving electronic information screen detailing crime rates - suggests ample stimulation for sociologists, social historians and students of law.

A multi-screen TV newsroom designed to report conflict around the world as it happens, was also in the last stages of completion; what better place for media students to observe, record and debate news values, agenda-setting and propaganda?

Apart from several barely-audible commentaries relating to assorted tableaux (one in particular, on the Battle of Pavia in 1525, prompted shouts of "Turn it up!"), teachers and students will only have one real problem with the Royal Armouries: finding time to fit it all in. Overall a most polished production, the Royal Armouries looks as near as you'll get to a cast-iron guarantee of a memorable school outing.

* The Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, Armouries Drive, Leeds, Yorkshire LS10 1LT. Tel: 0113 220 1999. Fax: 0113 220 1955. Opening times: 10am - 5pm (winter), 10am - 6pm (summer). Adults Pounds 6.95, students Pounds 5.95, children Pounds 3.95, school groups Pounds 3.50 per pupil

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