GW: I’m here today with Natasha Bennett, curator of Asian and African collections at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and author of many papers, such as A Consideration of a Series of X-rays of Asian Pivoted Matchlock Mechanisms, Arms and Armour, Volume 10, Number 1 and Armour for an Age of Peace in the anthology of lectures given for The Making of the Samurai in Tokugawa Japan. So some interesting technical areas there. So without further ado, Natasha, welcome to the show.
NB: Thank you very much. It’s lovely to be here.
GW: And am I right in thinking you are actually in Leeds?
NB: I’m currently north of Leeds. I’m doing this from my office at home. And so, as with most institutions coming out of COVID, we’ve all had to slightly readjust the ways that we work, so I am back in the museum on certain days but particularly for things like this it actually turns out it’s probably better to do it from home.
GW: So yes, you must miss being surrounded by the swords?
NB: I do. Lockdown was torture from that perspective. It is so hard to do a collections-based job and not actually be able to touch the collection, or be with the collection, or see the collection. It’s awful, and so a huge, huge relief to be back on site on a regular basis and be able to have access to the objects that it’s my job to work with.
GW: So you can’t sneakily fill up your car with them and take them home to look after them at home for a bit.
NB: Unfortunately not. It is so tempting on occasion. But no, unfortunately, I think our registrar would probably have something to say about that. I don’t think I can provide quite the conditions necessary for adequate maintenance of prime collection objects.
GW: But if we see you walking out of the museum one day with very stiff legs, so your knees don’t bend, there’s probably a sword down each trouser leg.
NB: And although having said that, a lot of the swords that I work with aren’t really a suitable shape for doing that. So unless I was wearing a sort of large marquee type skirt, I think they would stick out at slightly strange angles.
GW: I’m definitely not trying to persuade you to nick stuff from the Royal Armouries, but the temptation must be extreme. OK, so you first appeared on my radar when one of my students mentioned your research into Jezails ages ago, and that’s a pretty niche area. So I have to ask what drew you to Jezails and what is a Jezail? Because some people won’t know.
NB: I’m really interested that you’ve asked that because I seem to have had a huge number of conversations about Jezails recently. Probably more than I think I’ve ever had in my entire time at the armouries. And that’s over a decade now. I do wonder if your student might actually have meant my broader work on Asian matchlocks because I personally can’t claim to have investigated the Jezail in any massive depth myself. I can go into them a little bit. So, for those who don’t know, a Jezail is a typical long musket that is associated with Afghanistan and the surrounding areas. And when you first look at it, the major feature that immediately stands out on most of them is that they have this very pronounced, curved butt. The stock curves down in a very obvious fashion, and it’s far more pronounced than you get on a lot of Asian firearms. And they usually come with matchlock and flintlock mechanisms, and they’re quite famous for being quite, well, famous in contemporary accounts, as being quite accurate weapons. The reason that I’ve been talking about this quite a lot is that I’ve had a couple of enquiries about them just come in and just seem to have adhered to the same topic, randomly, which happens sometimes. But I also had an ongoing conversation with a gentleman who is a private collector and he got in touch to ask whether the jezail had been officially tested, partly as British Army investigations into the efficacy of the Afghan jezail and he’s clearly looked at this in far more detail than I have. So it’s an online forum thread that he’s currently running, and I think the title of the thread is A 15 Rupee Jezail. And he’s currently undertaking quite methodical testing of how effective that weapon is in practical terms. He’s taking quite a scientific approach, now obviously, this isn’t anything to do with the armouries.
GW: You’re not allowed to shoot the guns.
NB: No, we do sometimes. It depends what part of the collection they belong to and whether they’re classified as fit for practical testing. And so my colleagues in the firearms department, they do do quite a lot of that activity, so they have tested guns. But I don’t think we’ve tested a jezail. I’m fascinated to find out what the continuum results are from this thread. And so I can’t officially endorse that, obviously. But if anybody’s interested in jezail, that’s the place to go and have a look and see what’s progressing with them.
GW: What platform is it on?
ND: I think it’s the British Militaria Forum or something.
GW: But a search for “15 Rupee Jezail” should bring it up.
NB: Yeah, that should bring it up. But for myself more generally, the research that I think your student might have been talking about was what I produced for my very first published article as a curator. The reason that came about was because when I first started at the Armouries the museum sent out a group of an Asian and European matchlocks to Oman for an exhibition on the matchlock and it was quite an eclectic selection, as I say, drawn from across Europe and Asia and as part of the investigative work that happened beforehand, our conservation team actually X-rayed all of the pieces that were being sent out. They wanted to know what was going on inside and one of our conservators and presented quite a scientifically oriented study about how the mechanisms were assembled and how they could be disassembled and how they were secured in the stocks and everything. It was the first time really that I’d looked at x-rays from this kind of perspective before, I’d never really played around with that potential for looking beneath the surface of arms and armour to find out what’s going on out of view of our naked eye. What I was personally really interested in was taking the Asian matchlocks and with the very simple, pivoted matchlock mechanisms as a kind of group. I wanted to say how whether the x-rays would shed any light over geographical similarities and variations within those mechanisms and in ways that you just can’t see if you just look at the gun in normal circumstances, because normally, all you can see with an assembled matchlock is the kind of serpentine protruding out from the top and the trigger. You can’t see how it’s assembled inside. So I thought I would look at this group and try and track those features and see if any conclusions could be drawn about how the technology was transmitted across Asia and developed and refined in different ways, or whether it was all a blanket approach and there was no variation at all. The sample that I used, it wasn’t comprehensive enough to do anything other than make quite fledgeling observations and draw some initial conclusions, but it was enough to generate some ideas. And what I ascertained from the objects that I looked at was that very interestingly, progress within the matchlock world in Asia seemed to be defined by a simplification of the mechanism so the technology that initially came over, the Turkish empire’s kind of picked up the initial matchlock idea from European firearms technology, saw the benefits and developed it into their own very effective matchlock mechanism which was operated by a series of pivoted linkages, which the X-rays show up very, very clearly. And it’s quite simple, but there’s quite a few components to it, whereas you go forward a couple of centuries and you look at and matchlock mechanisms which were still in active use in many parts of Asia and you start to get an idea that they’ve actually been refined through simplification. So they’re still regarded as active functional weapons, which were quite often the preferred choice. They had access to various of the different types of firearms technology. They had awareness of developments, flintlock mechanisms, percussion mechanisms were all produced and used and on quite a large scale, but matchlocks were still in this active role. And even though in the Turkish empire, which had been the kind of initial instigator of this from the Asian perspective and had transmitted and conveyed it across the Asian continent, they’d very quickly kind of parked the matchlock. They’d moved on and converted most of their firearms to the miquelet lock.
GW: What’s a miquelet lock?
NB: It’s a flintlock mechanism and the way you can tell a typical Turkish miquelet lock is that the main spring is visible on the outside of the stock. And so with a lot of Europeans snaplocks the spring element is encased. And whereas with Turkish miquelets, everything is on the outside. So it’s visible and you can see its operation. With the continuation of the matchlock, with a lot of South Asian matchlocks mechanisms, for example, the whole kind of structure becomes far more elongated, partly to fit in with the stock shape and also because it reduces the number of linkages within the overall workings. And it just focuses on one sort of main spring section, which is integral to the overall matchlock mechanism. That’s a very simple example but that the South Asian matchlock was ubiquitous. It was used everywhere. And I just found it really interesting that they actively continued to deploy this technology and their way of developing it was to make it even simpler and easier to use. It didn’t become more complex. It didn’t become more labour intensive to produce, and it wasn’t more complicated. Part of the reason the matchlock was so successful was because it worked. Particularly in the climates that it was being used in, it didn’t misfire. There are accounts of Arab Bedouin, for example, replacing flintlock mechanisms with matchlock mechanisms because they just preferred them. So they actually took what would, in some lights, be considered a step backwards, but for them, it made eminent good sense because the mechanism is reliable. It was easy to fix if it went wrong. It didn’t need as much input in terms of resources. And it’s that age old mantra, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
GW: Tell that to the people who invented the SA80.
NB: Sorry, that’s a very long winded overview of my research that I think might have triggered that question. And if it was specifically about jezail, I can’t add anything in that amount of depth.
GW: OK, I have a question for you. Is the jezail the real world model for the Sand People’s rifles in Star Wars?
NB: Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, I’m going to commit absolute sacrilege here. You are talking to the person who gets Star Trek mixed up with Star Wars.
GW: Very well, then we will draw a polite veil.
NB: I’m so sorry. For all popular culture. You need my colleagues Jonathan Ferguson and Bob Woosnam-Savage. I’m an absolute Luddite when it comes to current cultural trends.
GW: This isn’t actually a Star Wars podcast, we’re all about the historical arms and armour stuff. So you’re absolutely fine.
NB: Thank you. That makes you feel so much better.
GW: But I find it fascinating that the older technology works better in some areas and so they went back to it.
NB: Well, it’s not even that they went back to it, they just continued it. They adopted it around the 16th century and it carried on in practical use for 200-300 years. I mean, they were still being used in the late 19th, early 20th centuries in many parts of the world as genuine functional weapons.
GW: Excellent. And we are very much in favour of this sort of thing on this show because we’re all about taking those weapons and making them work again so if they’ve never gone out of service in the first place, that’s even better.
NB: It’s very true. Yes.
GW: OK. I interviewed Toby Capwell recently. You must know him.
NB: I do, yes.
GW: And he started working for the Armouries as a jouster. That’s how he got into the business. And I don’t think that’s how you got started as a curator. Correct me if I’m wrong. So how did you get started and what actually is the job?
NB: I really, really wish that my entry into the curatorial profession had been half so romantic and dramatic as Toby’s. No, he really is the all rounded curator because he practises as well as has the book learning. Apart from an obvious shared love of horses, which was one of the main reasons that I got interested in the area that I’m interested in, my route in was considerably more standard. It just involved progressing from step to step, working very hard and getting as much relevant experience as possible before I landed a post. I did a history B.A. at Durham University, and then I worked for the local library and then I went into publishing for a short time, and neither of those felt like a career that I could see myself in long term. But what they did do was give me very, very useful skills that I could then apply to my curatorial role. So I then took the plunge and I went back to university and did a Masters in Museum Studies and I did various volunteer placements during that time to get as broad a range of experience as possible. And then I was very, very lucky to secure an internship at the V&A for six months as part of one of their exhibitions teams. That so gave me a big step up. And then just when I was coming to the end of that an entry level curatorial role was advertised at the Armouries and I thought oh my goodness, I don’t stand a chance but it’s my dream job, and I know it sounds really cliché to say it, it is my dream job and I will regret it forever if I don’t apply. And so the role was for curatorial assistant. So right in at the bottom and interesting that this role would come to specialise and in supporting the Asian and African collections and I’ve just worked my way up from there really in an attempt to do justice to it ever since. So I started in 2011 as a curatorial assistant. And then I moved it to assistant curator and then I was acting curator because my predecessor, Tom Richardson, who was the Keeper of Armour and what we termed the “oriental collections”. He became deputy master so obviously, they needed somebody to take responsibility. And then I was confirmed as curator a few years ago. So, yeah, it was literally climbing the ladder for me. But working up from the bottom like that means that you get that essential grounding in all aspects of the role. And so now my day to day job is so varied and I fully appreciate how lucky I am to be able to say that. It’s brilliant. My primary function is to help safeguard, present and develop the Asian and African arms and armour at the Royal Armouries. And a big part of that is furthering the specialist knowledge and engagement within that remit. And so I research and write publications, display exhibition content and seminar presentations, talks. I answer enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions who come to us, because we’re quite a specialist collection they come to us for the niche advice that they can’t necessarily source from other institutions. I supervise visitors who need access to the study collections and help with identifying objects. I’m involved with filming projects which can be hugely varied in what they undertake. I’ve done one that was entitled Samurai Warrior Queens, which was quite exciting. I’ve done things on the South Asian collections. Filming can just go anywhere, all over the place, entirely dependent on the project that comes in. Sort of associated with that, then on multiple different platforms, we all have to be involved with digital engagement. That’s an increasingly big part of what we do and how the museum interacts with its different audiences. And then at the nitty gritty end of the scale I help with various collections’ management duties, by which I mean things like auditing and careering loan objects, helping with installs. And then I’m also actively involved with the acquisitions process because the museum is still actively acquiring things for the collection. We’re still building. We’re still trying to get hold of things that will help us to tell as many different stories or existing stories better. So we still have a budget. I mean, it varies wildly in scale from depending on circumstances, but we are still actively acquiring. So I’m involved in that process as well. I’m tasked with sourcing objects, putting them forward to committee and getting those proposals through and then sometimes even managing to buy things. It’s quite exciting when it actually all works out. It doesn’t happen very often.
GW: Wow. There’s a lot there.
NB: Yes, no day’s the same.
GW: Let me just start by saying, it’s very sexy and dramatic to get into being an arms and armour curator by literally jousting your way in. But that’s actually not a practical approach for many people. So it’s actually really useful for many listeners to hear how you did it through a much more standard way. Go and get this education, then do this kind of volunteer work, that master’s degree, then apply for these things and with a bit of luck, this sort of thing. It is a lot more replicable.
NB: It’s so hard to advise people who want to get into the field, because everybody’s different. Everybody’s got their own skills and knowledge to bring to the role. There’s no set route in. And, as you’ve just mentioned, a certain amount of it, unfortunately is luck because there are so few jobs. It’s a fascinating area, as we all know, as everybody who is interested in this field knows, because they often live and breathe it. And there are so few professional jobs that enable people to do what they love as their profession. And it’s a brutal situation, I know, and it’s really hard to get that balance between not dissuading people because you know what right has anybody got to say, don’t pursue your dream. But just be realistic is kind of the message. The advice I would give is get broad experience as possible. Don’t fit yourself into that niche. Because sometimes it is pure luck and seeing that job advert come up, that’s what happened to me. I saw the job advert, I was in the right place at the right time and I had the skills that they wanted to develop. Whereas like fitting yourself into that kind of very prescribed niche right at the start of your career trajectory, you need to be more willing to take on as broad a range of experiences as possible and then hopefully an opportunity will come up.
GW: I think it’s like being an actor, millions of people want to do it and one in a thousand of them actually make a living at it, and one in a thousand of them actually do really well. Most of it’s luck being in the right place at the right time.
NB: Yes, it is. And I mean don’t get me wrong, there are opportunities out there and hopefully those opportunities are growing in number. The museum world is extremely mindful of the need to expand and engage and bring in all different types of knowledge and expertise in order to be able to share the collections on a more level playing field. It will hopefully get better and continue to improve, but it’s not easy. It isn’t easy.
GW: Now you mentioned digitisation earlier, can you tell us a bit about how you are digitising the collection and listeners to the show who heard my conversation with Craig Johnson, we discussed how in the Oakeshott collection they’re taking these 3-D images of the objects and they’re putting those online so people can get as close as you can get to actually picking it up and swinging around through a screen. So are you guys doing that sort of thing or is it something different? Tell us about it.
NB: I’m delighted that you have asked me this because it’s a great question and it taps straight into a project that I’ve been really excited to be involved in for the past few years, actually now. I can’t believe that much time has passed since they initially approached us. I’ve been working with a group called the Sikh Museum Initiative and they established a project which goes by the title of the Anglo Sikh Virtual Museum.
GW: Anglo Sikh Virtual Museum.
NB: And they manage to get Heritage Lottery funding to support it. Basically, the main idea is to source Anglo-Sikh objects from various institutions across the UK.
GW: What does “Anglo Sikh” mean in this context?
NB: By which I mean objects of Sikh heritage which are in this country by one means or another and have a great deal of relevance to the British Sikh community, well, Sikh communities across the world. But particularly as this is a UK project for UK Sikh culture. Basically the aim was to bring together these objects of significant cultural heritage all together in one place through the means of 3-D technology. It’s brilliant. If I just use the objects that they’ve used from our collection as an example of which they’ve also applied to the other pieces that they’ve incorporated and what they did was they chose three objects from our collections, so they selected a helmet with a bowl that was forged in the shape of a Sikh turban and a mail net guard. Sorry, I’m that enthusiastic that I’ve just pulled my own ear piece out, just a minute. Yes. A metal helmet bowl forged in the shape of a Sikh turban with a mail neck defence and beautifully decorated with gold overlay. Really stunning piece. A gorgeous shield and that is made out of crucible steel. Your listeners may know that by its more popular term of Wootz or Damascus, it’s often referred to as watered steel or Damascus steel. Well, one of the several iterations that can be referred to as Damascus Steel. That’s a whole confusing issue in its own right. Anyway, the shield is formed from crucible steel and again beautifully decorated, quite a traditional form of defence. And then the final object that they picked was our very well known Akali turban. The Akali Nihangs were a well known band of religious warriors who were tasked with being at the vanguard of fighting for the Sikh faith and its defence. And they wear these very instantly recognisable blue turbans built up quite high, and they absolutely bristle with weapons, so they’re usually surrounded by quoits. And so our example has quoits with sharpened edges over, arranged all the way up the turbans and then it’s got small swords and silver wire wrapped round, which gives it extra defensive capabilities. And then there is a totemic motif arranged in metal up the front, which has a lot of symbolic significance for protection.
GW: How much does it weigh?
NB: It’s quite light, I mean, it’s got a lot of weapons on it, but they’re all quite light metal weapons. And then it’s obviously on a textile substructure, which in itself is a piece of armour because it wraps around the Sikh hair. The Sikhs are well known for not cutting their hair and partly because it’s a sign of their faith to not their hair, but also because when it’s wound up in a turban, it’s actually a brilliant defence against sword thrusts. It cushions that force and impact. This was the last object that they picked to photograph and convert to a 3D model. And then what they’ve done with that, they took really detailed photography. And then one of the gentlemen involved in the Sikh Museum Initiative has his own 3D design consultancy so obviously, he’s brilliantly placed to convert these photos into fantastic interactive 3D models. The point of the Anglo Sikh Virtual Museum and is to bring these models to life through multiple different interfaces. These objects are now live on their website.
GW: I will find it and put a link in the show notes.
NB: If you can, that would be great. The Royal Armouries objects that are up there, along with objects from all these other institutions bringing this fascinating insight into Sikh culture. I mean, from our perspective, it’s predominantly Sikh martial culture but they’ve got hand ornaments and jewellery up there.
GW: And it’s not just arms and armour?
NB: It’s not just arms and armour. Obviously we would like to build on that because they’ve also had very, very successful events with that and where they put in 3D interactive stations, where people can put on the headset so they can get up so close and personal with these objects in a way that they just cannot do when an object is static behind glass and for various reasons, we have to have quite low level lighting in the gallery. So it’s very hard to pick out those details. So even though the Sikh Museum Initiative isn’t claiming to have created exact replicas, I mean, that’s one of the beauties of working with them, that they’re very careful to make sure that people know that this is one interpretation of these objects. They’re not claiming and total accuracy but it’s their interactive impression. And it means that people can have this entirely different relationship with those objects. They can turn them around. They can look inside, they can pick out elements of the detail that just can’t appreciate from a static display. And for that reason, that’s what we’re hoping to progress to next. We’re actually working with the Sikh Museum Initiative to put the results of what they’ve done for this project in our gallery, as a kind of installation. I mean, it’s very much a work in progress at the moment.
GW: Wouldn’t it be cool if you’ve got that turban with the quoits around it a VR headset right next to it.
NB: That is exactly the right thing.
GW: That would be so cool, but I just have a request. Please, somewhere put the weights. Actual dimensions and weights, because this is one thing that all of my swords friends get so frustrated about when they see the details, we want to make a replica of this and we have the length, we have the dimensions, we have the pictures too. But we need to know how much it weighs.
NB: Yeah, it’s so true because that is an essential factor in understanding the objects. You’re right. Quite a lot of the time that information either isn’t included at all, or it’s so easy when it’s one person inputting for a mistake to have happened somewhere along the line and then it takes decades to come back to a record and someone goes, I’m really not sure that that sword can weigh 50kg. It is literally a typo that’s happened. And then it’s been transferred between various different collections’ computer systems and it’s been misinterpreted. And then it just comes off as bizarre.
GW: And anything sword related, if you could put point of balance there as well that be brilliant, anything kind of long and pointy – point of balance. Mass and point of balance would make all the difference in the world for us.
NB: For this particular project, we don’t actually have a sword involved in it.
GW: We will expand and go onto other things.
NB: That’s what we’re hoping. This is the starting point and the Sikh Museum initiative and would like to use that as a foundation to progress to look at the collection more widely. I mean, as your listeners may well know the site in Leeds is not the only Royal Armouries site, we also have the artillery collection which is mostly based down at Fort Nelson in Hampshire, which is Palmerston fort. So we’ve got quite a few Sikh guns down there and we’ve also got the historic home at the Tower of London and the White Tower. We don’t have that much of the collection still based there, but we’ve still got some very important objects down there. So again, it’s that kind of idea of bringing things together in a place that people can appreciate them as a kind of broader collection. They know where to go, they know where to look at the stuff, and it’s developing that research as part of that process and inputting that information. It’s again, getting that balance and appreciating all the different sorts of information that people are actually interested in. Because it’s only as good as what you put in, what you get out, so that means that we need to undertake so much consultation and engagement to understand what it is that people want to know.
GW: Yeah. For us, it’s dimensions, mass, point of balance. OK, vibrational note would be awesome if you could think about that. I don’t think you want to go slapping the flat of a 300 year old sword to see how it wobbles. Probably not.
NB: Possibly not.
GW: But just if you get the chance, just feel free. There will be people who will be very happy with you to do that. And we’ve also mentioned a bit about where objects come from, and this actually is a question that comes from one of my patrons. So what are your feelings about the circumstances under which items ended up in the collection? Because some of them pretty much have to be effectively colonial loot, if you’ll forgive the expression?
NB: No, you’re right. Some of it is.
GW: And there’s a whole there’s a massive discussion going on sort of worldwide in lots of different contexts about this fundamental issue. I know you’re not speaking for the Armouries. They have their own official policies and stuff, but how do you feel about these things?
NB: It’s a very tricky issue, it’s uncomfortable. It needs to be acknowledged. It’s important to take that acknowledgement forward in whatever action is appropriate. Now, I think for our particular collection, I think it’s important to remain aware of its nature, it’s arms and armour. And that means that aggression, conflict, defeat, dominance: these are all often inalienable parts of the stories that it tells. Now the legacies of the British Empire and other Empires are definitely a part of that. There’s no escaping from that fact. And that legacy informs a significant element of the context around how a lot of that collection arrived as part of the museum and decolonisation work is currently escalating, and it will need to play a really clear role in how the museum engages with its collection and its audiences in the future. But reimagining the collection through a lens like that I think needs to remain balanced and it needs to take account of a sort of awareness that conquest and dominion have been enacted across the globe by innumerable civilisations, since the dawn of man, basically, it’s an inherent part of human nature. So I think that’s an important broader story to bear in mind and placing disproportionate emphasis on current very grounded perceptions and that very engineering victor/vanquished relationship, which is based on recent history at the expense of illuminating more universal narratives, also poses a risk of a museum such as ours appearing quite condescending, if that’s the right way to put it. It would ultimately do all of the stories and histories that we can represent on that global level of activity a bit of a disservice if it’s taken too far. So I’m saying it needs to be acknowledged and it needs to play a very important role in how we reassess how we present and share knowledge and power and ownership, but we’ve got to keep that kind of overarching awareness in place as well. Also, I think it’s quite important to remember that aggression and control and repression these aren’t. I know we’re a museum of arms and armour and weapons are designed to inflict hurt and kill and maim – that’s part of their reason for being and their makeup but those negative aggressive aspects aren’t always the main contributing factors behind and the sort of production and use of the objects on the collecting activity that went on around it, regardless of the countries or the communities that are involved. And so I think it’s important to remain mindful of the narratives that objects, which may have a colonial connection, they may not, but they have other aspects to them so they can be symbols of friendship, diplomacy, collaboration and sport, interests, trade activity, development of technology, knowledge exchange, influence of different forms of artisanship. It’s important not to just park all of those aspects in favour, you know what I mean? They’re multifaceted, there’s so many interpretations and understandings that can come out of them. And I think we need to as well as acknowledging problematic aspects and the legacies that very definitely come with that and have to be faced. I think we need to also weave in the positive interaction and engagement that’s happened through and as a result of those objects and bring those stories to light as well. Because I think that creates a better platform for understanding and mutual appreciation. One final thing, for us, going back to the nature of our collection and what we’re tasked with holding for the nation, the national collection of arms and armour, war booty is by no means the main part of our collection or even one of the biggest elements, but it’s quite difficult to work out where to draw the line in terms of ethical implications, where that material sits because obviously, victorious powers have looted following conflict since time began.
GW: And one of the reasons they go to war in the first place is to get the money.
NB: As these issues come up, it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. You can’t have one solution to fit all. So to go back to the Anglo Sikh objects in our collection, they came in as a result of a variety of different processes. Quite a few of them were purchased following the Great Exhibition of 1851 as superlative examples of craftsmanship and acquired to educate British artisans. So that’s something that people often don’t realise. But having said that, and that is one group of our Sikh collections. But a large part of it came in as a result of East India Company’s collecting activity immediately in the aftermath of the Anglo Sikh wars of the 1840s. And the East India Company was specifically tasked with by the Board of Ordnance, who oversaw the Armouries at the Tower with collecting complete sets of South Asian arms and armour with particular focus on the Sikhs and the Afghans because basically the Sikhs and the Afghans had brought the British fairly close to defeat.
GW: Yeah, they had the best militaries.
NB: So there was this fascination in Britain with this kind of revered and feared enemy. So there was a need to appreciate and understand and get a much better idea of this foe that had been made infamous and in the press and through the experience of people coming back. So they were specifically tasked with collecting in a quite systematic way, arms and armour to represent and what Sikh warriors were wearing when they were facing up to the British Armies. So that is definitely and war booty after fashion and you can’t get away from that fact. And particularly because a lot of it came out of the Tashkhana, the Treasure House in Lahore, and it was all selected by the British military leaders and sent back to Britain specifically for display and incorporation in collections. But my longwinded point here is that that came in as of quite a problematic context, and that is going to upset a lot of people now, particularly if it’s not transparent and fully acknowledged, which we are working on. It’s not perfect at the moment by any means. But we want to get this information out there so that there’s a better understanding of how it was assembled and amassed and sent back and put in place as a very important collection, but not necessarily in the context that a lot of people would like it to have remained in. My point being, is that different to, for instance, French arms and armour that was looted after Waterloo, because that probably doesn’t have the same reaction. How is it more justified for us to have looted equipment from Waterloo?
GW: I have a story for you that might be useful. I need to fact check this, but this is the story I was told. I used to live in Finland and this little town on the coast of Finland, Kokkola and many moons ago, when the British Navy was doing stuff with Russia and stuff in the Baltic Sea, a bunch of British sailors took a boat and ended up breaching it on Kokkola and going in and trying to raise hell and raid the town. They all got slaughtered by the Finns, and they’re all buried there. And of course, the town of Kokkola kept the boat. And it’s there in the town square. You can see it. It is the only British naval vessel still in enemy hands. And the story goes, in the 1980s, the Royal Navy said, OK, we’d like our boat back, please, and we’re happy to pay to have all the streets in the town repaved because that’s something we have to do a lot in Finland because of the winter tyres, the spikes on them grind up the surface. So it’s quite an expensive process. The Royal Navy said we will pay for the streets to be repaved if you’ll give us our boat back. To which the Kokkolans replied, Actually, no, we quite like our boat. Thank you very much.
NB: That’s the prize.
GW: But nobody can reasonably say that that boat was Finnish imperial aggression stealing stuff from poor old Britain, right? And everybody’s like, oh, well, that’s a David and Goliath story where David is kind of cocking a snoot and everyone smiles when they hear it.
NB: It goes back to that kind of victor/vanquished relationship that I was talking about. In the world, as it is today, it becomes far more difficult to reasonably justify holding on to the former possessions of the recently defeated.
GW: And to go back to France, Britain didn’t then colonise France and extract massive wealth out of it for the next couple of hundred years. The French took over their own country again. Napoleon got sent off to Elba, or wherever it was.
NB: So that is definitely something that has to be taken into account. As I say, it’s something where we’re feeling our way with a lot at the moment and it needs to be open to discussion. There’s so many complexities that need to be taken into account. And as I say, it’s a case by case basis. But if you’re telling a global universal story about arms and armour, it’s just that point, the taking of trophies or loot from enemies has been a widespread phenomenon throughout human history. And that needs to be a part of the way that we consider and present the collection. But at the same time, we need to make the most of the opportunities to reflect and share ownership and expand our interpretation and our understanding.
GW: OK, I have a really specific question for you. This is another one from one of my patrons: Somebody called Dr Alfred Geibig said during a private tour through the Asian and African arms collection at the Veste Coburg in Germany, that in this cultural sphere, the quality of steel and level of craftsmanship diminishes the further you move away from India. And my patron would like to know whether that reflects your impression. Have fun with that. Go ahead!
NB: No, is the short answer.
GW: OK. Fair.
NB: I can expand on that.
GW: Please do.
NB: It’s quite a complex idea rolled into a succinct sentence. I mean, obviously, the quality of Indian or South Asian steel is legendary, and South Asia was a major producer and exporter of that crucible steel that I mentioned earlier, which is incredibly hard, it makes fantastic sword blades. It’s used quite a lot in armour and depending on how it’s forged, the appearance is absolutely exquisite. It’s just gorgeous. You get this beautiful, rippled, watered effect on, well, it comes off as being on the surface of the steel, but it’s actually integral to its chemical structure and its makeup, and it’s intrinsic to the material. It’s not just a surface effect. India and was a big, big producer of this material, it was exported across the globe, highly sought after in Europe and across Asia and obviously there were large communities of highly trained craftsmen which could travel. Loads of them were coming out of the Indian courts and they had very, very specialist skills. But I don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that India was the main or the only hub. I can pick various miscellaneous examples, and I’m sure that they’d better connected if I could say it slightly more lucidly. But if I just pick out a few and say, we’ve got a Persia, for example, and Iranian swords are world renowned. And so you’ve got Damascus, a really important hub of arms and armour production, interestingly, going back to what I was saying before about this kind of confusion over what it means if you say Damascus Steel. Well, one of the versions of that is that Damascus produced this Crucible steel. Most of the time not. It was imported and then manufactured in Damascus into the exquisite sword blades that we recognise as being typically Persian and in style, and Isfahan also a really important centre of arms and armour manufacture, again, particularly swords. And one of the most famous swordsmiths of all time, depending on whether you think he existed or not, Assadullah of Isfahan. This signature of Assadullah and crops up on so many sword blades across several centuries and it was absolutely impossible that he could conceivably have made all of them, he would have had to have been about 400.
GW: It’s like Andrea Ferrara.
NB: Yes. Very, very similar. Yes. Again, it is thought that he probably did exist, probably early seventeenth century but the products that came out of him could have been his workshop maybe, later generations, or people imitating him and using the signature cartouche as a kind of stamp of quality or just out and out fakes. You know, that’s a famous swordsmith, I’ll put that name on the blade.
GW: There wasn’t much in the way of trading standards.
NB: Quite. So the standard can vary wildly. But the point being, the reason for this world famous reputation is because a lot of those blades have very, very high quality. And so, yeah, Iran was a really important centre and jumping across, Japanese metalwork and Japanese swords are legendarily high quality. You’ve got the case that through passing on all of those traditions and that incredible level of expertise and an artisanship. We’ve got Japanese swordsmiths today who were counted as living national treasures because what they produce is of such awesome quality. I mean, it’s poetry in steel. If you watch a Japanese blade being made.
GW: And they do it wearing white. They’re doing blacksmithing wearing white robes. How the hell do you do that?
NB: I’ve seen it in Japan, I watched a swordsmith in action. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and he didn’t get a speck on him.
GW: Yeah, I don’t know how you do that. I do woodwork and stuff, and I usually change into scruffy clothes beforehand.
NB: For them, it’s the equivalent of a religious ceremony producing those blades.
GW: The sword is one of the symbols of Shinto, you’ve got the sword, the jewel and the mirror. It’s like creating a crucifix for us.
NB: Yeah. And the amount of ritual and cultural appreciation that goes into it is absolutely phenomenal, it blows the mind. And when I saw this happening, I went out to Japan a couple of years ago, and saw this process in action firsthand and so many of the things that I’d read and only been able to vaguely visualise in my head up until that point clicked into place and just through observing that activity. It was amazing, but yeah, the level of precision and that they achieve is just absolutely incredible.
GW: I guess your experience is a bit like the difference between seeing an object behind glass and actually getting to pick it up and play with it.
NB: Yeah, you can’t substitute for that.
GW: I should probably interject here that you and Dr. Alfred Geibig, who I know nothing about, there’s nothing between you, and it’s perfectly possible that the person who asked this question has misrepresented Dr Geibig’s position. I just wanted to get that on the record.
NB: I’m not disagreeing with a personal opinion, and it’s just my own impression don’t quite tally with that representation, but moving onto a broader overview of that kind of an impression, it just goes to show that appreciation can be a very, very subjective thing. And what pleases one set of sensibilities may hold very little appeal for somebody from a very different cultural background. So your idea of what counts as high quality and pre-eminent craftsmanship may change. What is very meaningful to one person may have absolutely jack-all relevance to somebody else. The one that springs to mind, take the incredibly elaborate metal work that goes into making a Malaysian kris blade. Those are some absolutely stunning pieces. And yet you go back to catalogues of several decades ago and they’re not exactly complimentary, shall we say.
GW: Yeah. I’ve seen some of those catalogues. But, just look at it! Look at the layers in the steel, look at the way the waves are so perfectly done.
NB: They are pattern welded. I mean, we’ve got a couple of examples in the collection that have somehow, I’m sure a Malaysian swordsmith would be able to explain it to me if the traditions haven’t passed out of all knowledge, which can happen, unfortunately. But we’ve got a couple of examples in the collection where one side of the blade has an entirely different pattern and set up to the other side of the blade.
GW: That’s just showing off.
NB: And you just think, how on earth did they do that? Without that deep inheritance of tradition and understanding and appreciation you can only observe on a superficial level. So yeah, I mean, for me, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Yes, India did have or does have hugely superior production of steel and of the artisan skills that then enable that to be fashioned into absolutely exquisite arms and armour but they weren’t the only place as far as I’m concerned.
GW: Now we’re running close to time. I have a couple of questions that I usually ask my guests. And my first of these is what is the best idea you’ve not acted on?
NB: This is going to sound really weird: to learn horseback archery.
GW: That’s a great idea. I’ve done a little bit and it’s great fun.
NB: It always looks great fun. And I am so green with envy about one of my friends. He’s Finnish and he’s a professional arms and armour conservator.
GW: Lasse Mattila. We’re old friends, we’ve known each other 25 years.
NB: Lasse is just, I don’t know how he does everything he does, but as you will know he’s a professional conservator. So he’s got a huge knowledge of arms and armour from that perspective. But he lives on a farm so he can build and test stuff like a trebuchet.
GW: He doesn’t live on the farm. He lives in a flat in Helsinki, but he has access to his family’s summer cottage outside of Helsinki. So he has space to do that stuff.
NB: Yeah, yeah. And he’s also learnt to ride brilliantly well as an adult, which is tricky in itself. So he’s now doing horse archery. And I’m just like, this is just not fair.
GW: He’s living his best life.
NB: Yes, he is. It’s amazing. But it gives him that inherent understanding and appreciation and perspective that as somebody who whose job revolves around the book learning and the careful preservation of museum objects, but not that first hand experience of how it actually feels to wield a weapon and use it. So I want to know what it actually feels like and understand just a little bit about the skills that warriors need to develop. So I rode a lot growing up. I’m a rider but I just can’t fight on horseback.
GW: It can be arranged.
NB: It can be arranged. But I don’t live anywhere near any of the centres that seem to give you that grounding. And so I don’t know. Horse archery and cavalry in general is such a fundamental part of the main narrative for arms and armour of the part of the collection that I look after, excuse the arms and armour pun, but it would be an extra string to my bow to have that practical skill that gives me, I’m not saying it would inform in any major way because you need to do it like they did it, you know, train from before they can walk, essentially and live that way of life. And I could never appreciate that, but just that thrill as getting to grips with a composite bow and loosing an arrow and finding a target.
GW: I have some friends to introduce you to. I’ll drop any of those off after we’re done.
NB: The one problem I might have with that is that I’m currently seven months pregnant.
GW: Well, congratulations. So I would suggest perhaps doing it after the baby is born.
NB: I might need to leave it a few months.
GW: I’ve had a brilliant idea. You have access to an actual baby. You can see what happens when you get the child to ride before it walks, and you could actually train the child to be a horseback archer from birth.
NB: That’s a brilliant idea. Thank you.
GW: You’re very welcome.
NB: Yeah. So that will be that will become the best idea that I impose upon my child.
GW: Absolutely, because this is what we do as parents, right?
GW: Yes, yes. I have two kids, and when they were very little, they loved to sword fight with me. But by the time they were like six or so, they were like no, boring. Daddy’s boring old swords.
NB: Oh yeah, but you know, they should count themselves very lucky to have that background.
GW: Well, some of their friends think that my swords are cool, but my own children, no. So the project of making your child a horseback archer, it may not work terribly well after about the first five years and make sure you get in there early.
NB: Yeah, yeah. While they’re impressionable.
GW: Exactly. OK, so my last question is somebody gives you a million pounds or dollars to spend improving knowledge of arms and armour and stuff worldwide.
NB: Oh gosh.
GW: Where would you put the money?
NB: Oh, the idea of having resources at my fingertips, when in the heritage sector every penny has to be scraped. I think for me, it’s all about access to be able to spread knowledge, and it’s about the capacity of museums and other institutions to make their collections, and by that, I mean including archives, libraries, catalogues, the other resources as well as the objects themselves, as available in as many ways as possible. In this current day and age and the opportunities for making collections ever more accessible in a huge variety of ways to multiple different audiences, both established and new, it’s never been greater and the opportunities just keep escalating. But it’s having the capacity and the resources to do the work and foster that active engagement to bring it about effectively. And so it’s not just coming from the same sources and producing the same information, because access helps transparency. That in turn helps towards the sharing of perceived ownership, knowledge pooling, knowledge exchange, knowledge growth, diversification, it helps with decolonisation work and inclusivity. You know what I was saying earlier about we need to make sure action happens as a result of all these good intentions. I think this is one way that we can really aspire to achieve that in a realistic way. So we get the collections out there and then people can use them and share them and know them, and we’ve all been there. If you don’t know what’s in an institution, you’ve got so little to go on. You and I both, we know how frustrating it is when you think an object might be in a particular collection, but you don’t know who to contact. You want to know more generally about a particular institution’s holdings. And that just doesn’t seem to be a good, easy way of finding out, and I’m a curator for goodness sake, if I can’t find out. It’s very limiting. Even though digitisation of collections is a major push for us and all other institutions around the world right now, for all of the multitude of different benefits that can bring, it takes so much time and so much resources. Even with all the modern technology. And as I say, it’s only as good as what you put in, what you get out of it. So a million pounds towards putting as much arms and armour out there as possible on multiple different platforms would be very, very welcome. I think that would be a good use of money at the moment.
GW: Well, if I had the money, I’d give it to you. But I do say that to almost all my guests.
NB: Well, it’s part of our core work, and why it’s been so refreshing over the past couple of years because there’s been this really big emphasis on trying to improve core cataloguing. And part of that is because we’ve got a collection online interface now. And so you go on Royal Armouries collections online, every object should have an online record, as long as it’s in our collection and not loan objects, but all of our objects should have an online record. But with a national collection that goes into the many, many, many thousands of objects. It’s very much a drip process and it’s an ongoing rolling process. We’re doing it all the time.
GW: And so it’s always a good thing that you don’t have too much new stuff coming in as that would just add to the backlog.
NB: Yeah, it’s so true. But that is the main way that you start to become really fascinated by objects that you’ve never even looked at before. You know, I’m the curator of an area of the collection. I still go into stores and see things that my eye has just passed over before, and I’ve got no idea what it is. And you know, it’s only by doing that kind of ground level up analysis and then you put the information out there and somebody has a totally different take on it. And you think, oh, goodness, why? Why is that like that? And then that sends you on a whole new research trajectory. That’s what I mean about that’s what facilitates that knowledge growth. But if it’s just one person putting out feelers, you’re rather limited and restricted.
GW: Brilliant. Well, that’s a great answer. So thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Natasha. It’s been really interesting today.
NB: It’s been a lovely to talk to you. It’s been fascinating for me. I don’t know, all these thoughts that just whirling round in my head, so thank you. It’s been a great way to spend a morning.