We have been wanting to visit the Royal Armouries in Leeds for several years, so expectations were high.
From the outside it is a very functional and boring grey box. Inside, it feels a bit intimidating as the ground floor is a long bare corridor with bistro and shop on one side and meeting rooms on the other. In December with Christmas decorations slung across it felt more like an out of hours shopping mall than a museum. Lack of signing didn’t help either.
The only indication on the ground floor that this is a museum of warfare is the chance to fire a bren or a machine gun for £1. It could have done with a knight in shining armour on his charger to add impact and catch the attention.
At the far end is the reception desk. This is usually manned by helpful greeters who hand out a leaflet which lists the daily activities (20 minute talks in December) and has a useless map. There are a series of floor plans on the wall but these are equally confusing. By now we were beginning to feel disappointed and discouraged.
The inside of the museum is confusing until you have worked out how it works…. The exhibits are on the second to fifth floors. On the second and fourth floors, the displays cover the whole of the floor area on both sides of a wide corridor which runs the length of the building. On the third and fifth floor, there are ‘bridges’ across the central corridor below and a display gallery around the walls which looks down onto the gallery below.
At the far end of the corridor is the Hall of Steel, which is a steel and glass tower which contains a spiral staircase. The walls are lined with examples of armour, weapons and guns. Looking up it is visually impressive.
For those not wanting to tackle the stairs there are two lifts. Again this is confusing as one lift goes from the ground floor to the fourth floor. The other lift, the red left, goes to the fifth floor but can’t be accessed from the ground floor.
There is no set route to follow and it is very easy to miss areas of the museum. The arrangement in some of the galleries isn’t always logical. The history of the East India company for example, is covered on both the third and fifth floors. There is an exhibition of European presentation swords in the oriental galleries.
The guide book costs £5 and is excellent with reasonable maps of the galleries and descriptions of their contents. After reading this we began to get an understanding of how the Armouries worked. Ideally this needs reading before a visit. The website is high on visuals but poor on content and I found it confusing.
The second floor covers the Medieval period to the end of the Civil war with examples of weapons and armour. This is the place to start if you want to see Medieval knights in armour.
The third floor gallerys cover later history with from the Zulu and Crimea War to the two World Wars. Again there are examples of uniform, weapons and personal effects.
The fourth and fifth floors cover Oriental warfare on one side and hunting on the other. There is also an exhibition on self defence and gun crime in Leeds in gallery four.
We decided to start at the top of the building in the Oriental Galleries, which we found fascinating and only managed to get as far as gallery three by the end of the day. We will need to make a return visit to see the rest.
Gallery five concentrates on small weapons from across Asia with display cases with swords, shields and guns. Some were highly decorated with exquisite workmanship. There were also examples of European presentation swords.
Dominating gallery four is an elephant in full armour. Made around 1600, this is made of sheets of iron panels decorated with embossed peacocks, lotus flowers and elephants. There is a replica of one of the terracotta warriors and a horse as well as examples of horse armour with mounted figures on them. There are a lot of examples of armour from Mongolia, China, Japan and India. Oriental armour is quite different and is usually heavily padded and highly decorative. Some of it was purely ceremonial and worn by high ranking officials at court. Areas of the gallery are fairly dark and reflections on the glass make photography difficult. Part of this gallery is given over to displays about self defence and a new exhibit entitled ‘Impact’ which examines the effect of gun crime in Leeds. It was commissioned to “explore the social relevance of the collections”. While accepting the importance of this we felt it was out of place here and do have to question its relevance. We felt this was a response to the PC brigade.
We found the hunting galleries less interesting with their concentration on hunting weapons, especially guns and powder cases. Many of these were highly decorated to demonstrate the wealth and status of the owner. There is a reconstruction of a Victorian gentleman’s gun room with display cases round the walls and antlers on display. There is also a small display on whaling and clay pigeon shooting. In the corridor is a large tableau of a C19th tiger hunt.
On the third floor corridor there are two large carved lime wood panels with images of the First and Second World Wars. The war gallery covers C19th military history and the development of British Military uniform from 1000-the present day. There was also a display about the army in World War One, including the Dayfield Body Shield of 1916-18, which was made of four plates sewn together and was sold as ‘absolutely bayonet proof’ for 21/- To bring the story right up to date there was a display on how the modern army operates in Afghanistan.
There was a tremendous amount to take in and by the end of the day we were going into overload. There are small folding seats on the walls which can be taken and used around the galleries. Otherwise there is nowhere to sit in them, apart from bench seating for the video displays. There is seating on the fourth floor corridor which is also a picnic area for those bringing there own food.
The Bistro on the ground floor serves paninis, salads and soups at lunchtimes. It has a basic selection of sandwiches and pre wrapped cakes. The cafe on the second floor has an even more basic selection of sandwiches and serves soup and jacket potatoes at lunchtimes as well as the pre wrapped cakes. There is more information here.
For the kids there is the Jester’s Yard on the fifth floor where kids can dress up and play act for £2.50 per child with no time limits. There is also chance for grown ups to try firing a cross bow here.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, once we’d worked out the layout of the building and what to do. There is a tremendous amount to see, too much to take in during a single visit. Beginning at the top we missed out on the medieval armour which was a shame. This is the place to make several short visits. Entry is free.
There is good disabled access to all of the museums with lifts to all floors and disabled toilets on the ground, first and fourth floors. There are four manual wheelchairs available and visitors are allowed to use their motorised scooters in the museum. There is plenty of space to negotiate displays. Assistance dogs are allowed.
There is a drop off point for disabled passengers near the museum entrance. There are five designated disabled spaces in the coach park area next to the arena. Failing that there is some disabled parking in the multi story car park (charge). Full details here.