By Stuart Frost
I’m currently focussed on researching and developing low-tech interpretative devices for the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. At present I’m pre-occupied with a display provisionally titled ‘Hunting, Parades and Tournaments 1500-1600’. This subject will include some magnificent objects that highlight how much wealth Europe’s elite invested in arms, armour and equipment for hunting.
As part of the interpretation for the subject we’d like to commission a piece of armour that visitors can handle. To develop the idea further I visited recently one of the V&A’s collections stores with a specialist curator and an armourer. I spent the morning inspecting beautifully crafted pieces of armour in the company of two experts who could talk me through the history and manufacture of the objects.
Visiting the store brought back childhood memories. In particular the plate armour and helmets reminded me of drawing pictures of knights in history lessons at primary school, and watching swashbuckling films on Sunday afternoons after lunch. I know that for many people images of knights-in-armour capture the spirit of the ‘Middle Ages’. Audience research which we undertook at the start of the project revealed that knights-in-armour and castles feature in many peoples’ perceptions of the medieval period along with rain, plaque, sack-cloth and oppressive feudal lords.
We established that from a practical point of view a gauntlet is probably the best choice for a handling object. It should be possible to design the activity so that visitors can actually try the gauntlet on, but unfortunately we won’t be able to provide an example as richly decorated as the one illustrated here. In fact very few people would have been able to afford a pair of gauntlets like these. They may have been made as gift for the future King Philip III of Spain and have been exquisitely damascened in gold and silver.
I was fascinated to see pieces of armour and weapons that had been made for young children, although I hope that none of the present generation of youngsters will be getting their own cross-bow for Christmas this year!