Behind-the-Scenes of the Royal Armouries’ Make: Believe Collection with Robert Woosnam-Savage

Robert Woosnam-Savage shares some behind-the-scenes information concerning the Royal Armouries’ permanent exhibition, Make: Believe: Arms and Armour in Popular Culture.

Bob Woosnam-Savage is the current Curator of Armour and Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds. A visiting research fellow in the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds, his research interests include Medieval and Scottish arms and armour, medievalism, and the representation of the medieval world in film. He is one of the creative minds behind the new display at the Royal Armouries titled Make: Believe, and he has shared some exclusive information on the curation process behind a Royal Armouries permanent exhibition.

The Make: Believe exhibition comprises a curated collection of arms and armour from stage, film and TV, including cult classics The Lord of the Rings, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Eragon, Star Wars and Aliens. Its predecessor was the Arms & Armour from the Movies: The Wonderful World of Weta collection, a collaborative project with Sir Richard Taylor (Director of Weta Workshop) for the Royal Armouries in 2008. This exhibition was open for three months and attracted over 160,000 visitors; the largest number of people that the Royal Armouries has ever had for any temporary exhibition.

Following the success of the Weta exhibition, this display will also explore arms and armour from cult movies and TV shows. There is a particular focus in this exhibition on the parallelism between the historical arms and armour from the permanent collections, the props made for popular culture, and the subsequent development and design of real arms and armour today.

“A political dimension”

Make: Believe aims to draw comparisons between the arms and armour made for popular culture and the historical objects that influenced their design. The collection possesses, for example, the Necromonger Lord Marshal’s hero armour from The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which is modelled on an Italian parade armour of about 1532-5. Furthermore, Bob notes that, in some cases, the use of arms and armour, and imagery associated with it and its use, can carry an inherently political message, stating that “There is a political dimension to it as well, so as well as the art, in some cases one is also looking at the politics of the time, and how medieval and other history can be used -and warped- for political ideologies.”

The exhibition was made possible with the Heritage Lottery Fund, part of which went towards the acquisition of the objects, and the rest of which help fund the exhibition itself. Because of this funding, the “Collecting Cultures” project was born. Bob commented that the purpose of this project was to “allow [the Royal Armouries] to start collecting in new areas, with the aim of making collections more accessible to the public.”

For medievalists who are interested in medievalism in popular culture, this exhibition has a very special appeal. As Bob explained, “There are very few museums in the world where you can see the arms and armour from the movies, and from other forms of popular culture, alongside real historical pieces. If you go to a film museum, you wouldn’t be able to have that original item there to compare and contrast. You can go and see why designers made choices, even see why they designed an armour or a sword in that way.” As such, this is a rare opportunity for those studying arms and armour to learn from experts about the creative smithing process, and the ways in which historical arms and armour influence modern designs, in both real-life and on screen.

“A continuing and developing strand of our collections ”

However, this exhibition represents only one part of the museum’s process of accumulation. Bob spoke about the possibility of similar exhibitions in the future, saying “This is just the start, a continuing and developing strand of our collections now; we will be getting more [items] in the future and expanding.” On a final note, he enthused about the influence that arms and armour can have on the development of popular culture today, citing the example of the Highlander franchise, which was a product of the original scriptwriter’s hitch-hiking trip around Europe. “Gregory Widen was in the Tower of London looking at the collection [of arms and armour], and thought ‘what if I owned all this and had actually worn the armour in battle?’ That whole franchise therefore originated with a visit to the Armouries collection, which inspired the concept of a race of ‘immortals’.”

Some examples of what can be seen in the Make: Believe exhibition include Helmets from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a trick sword from Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and a replica of the alleged sword of Henry V made for and used by the actor Robert Hardy (perhaps better known to many today as the ‘Minister of Magic’ for the Harry Potter series of films) in 1960. An addition, too recent to add to the display, is one of two Russel Crowe ‘hero’ swords from Robin Hood (2010), which was donated by its maker, film armourer Simon Atherton, at the opening of the exhibition. The Royal Armouries is also “the one museum which can claim to have a ‘real’ armour worn by Lancelot - from John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur, obviously!” which was also worn by Adam Ant in his music video for Ant Rap of the same year. Furthermore, there is a section of the exhibition explaining how special effects are used to create the illusion of wounds and trauma, from old fashioned trick swords through to the modern use of digital blade extensions. A more comprehensive list of the items and themes on display can be found at the website.

The Make: Believe exhibition opened on the 25 October at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds. Entry is free.


Royal armouries helmet

Bacinet or "bowl" type helmet from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Image courtesy of Royal Armouries.

Cylindrical" helmet from medieval period

Cylindrical" helmet of the type seen and used by the "Knights of Camelot", in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Image courtesy of Royal Armouries