A Souvenir Programme
for the Public Opening of
The Royal Armouries
30th March 1996
The Royal Armouries museum in Leeds, boasted to be “Britain’s largest post-war (!) leisure development”, is the latest example of a burgeoning heritage industry. Not only does it promise to show us history as it really happened, but to bring history to life with the latest interactive technology, computer simulations and theatrical re-enactments. We will even see history in the making…. But in history as it really happened, the combatants did not spring back to life to share their ‘expert’ insights into fighting to the death. No matter how insistent this museum’s claims for the authenticity of its challenge to our senses, will we really see the blood and gaping wounds, hear the agonised cries of dying people and animals, smell the burning bodies or touch the fragments of a human existence mutilated beyond recognition? Invited to find out how we will fare in some of the most famous battles in history, the curators might just forget to tell us that we would probably have been killed or maimed. In history as it really happened, it was the poorly armed peasant, the conscripted worker and the terrorised civilian against whom the weapons on display were used, in wars which served, and continue to serve, their rulers’ interests.
In this museum, the truth of past experience is sanitised, distorted and censored. What is recreated is not an impartial history, and what we are shown is not what really happened, but what has been selected and fabricated to conform to a particular ideological worldview; almost invariably this is now a capitalist one, the only ‘reality’ that is allowed to us, and the Royal Armouries museum is one of its cultural manifestations. What is nurtured there is nostalgia for a contrived ‘glorious’ era of order and hierarchy which serves those who, through defining the past, would seek to control the present and maintain their power into the future. Such thrilling demonstrations, in which we can be involved in events that changed the world, are no more than a theatrical distraction: a poor substitute for participating fully in our own lives and transforming their material conditions so that we can take control over our destinies, to make our own histories.
One of the purposes of this museum is to encourage a fascination with the very profitable technology of killing; to present war as a corporate pageant of colourful, fast and exciting images, as slick as an inter-active arcade game, as friendly as the smiling tour guide. War has never been so much fun! As a form of entertainment in itself, we will be able to consume hi-tech military information – all of the mouth-watering statistics on the latest armaments – whilst being deceived into believing lies about non-lethal ‘smart weapons’ and ‘people-friendly’ bombs. But behind its state-of-the-art-of-war computer simulations and its theme-park historical re-enactments there lurks the same old message of obedience to authority, whether of feudal lord, monarch, nation, state or global corporation.
Militarism, celebrated in this museum, is the state’s way of ensuring that there is always a standing army in readiness to extend and protect its economic and territorial interests. It is the dehumanisation of military discipline, the process of uniformity and indoctrination which turns people into killing machines that will unquestioningly obey any order, that will serve any authority. This conditioning is comparable to the way in which our individuality is constrained by the work ethic, for the benefit of those who would govern our lives and profit from our labour. From factory fodder to cannon fodder is a short step; on the field of battle as in the world of work, people are no more than expendable units. But only cabbages stand in rows. The human spirit will always tend to break ranks and rebel!
We are not pacifists and we reject the mystical idealism of non-violence. We do not condemn anyone who fights for freedom and social justice; indeed, we applaud those who take up arms against their oppressors. So, will this museum tell us anything about the fierce wars between classes, the armed insurrections, and the ideas of revolutionary hope which have inspired and continue to inspire them? Such insurrectionary struggles cannot be imprisoned in the past, and their history, so often ignored or suppressed, is our history; it will not be found in a museum, nor can it ever be tamed and confined in curatorial displays. Or, true to its purpose and patronage, will the Royal Armouries teach only about national wars between competing states, encouraging us to identify with their patriotism and their propaganda? And even on these corpse-strewn ‘fields of honour’, will we hear the rebellious voices of the those who will die for neither God nor Master, of those who refuse to fight, of the insubordinate conscript, the mutineer, the deserter? In the museum’s computer simulations and recreations of battles, we doubt very much that an option to disobey will be available to us even as a false choice.
So, before you walk through the hall of steel and into the war galleries to look at the weaponry on display, before you are drawn to participate in its illusions, arm yourself with doubt and a few awkward questions, and you might see more than is reflected in the highly-polished armour and video screens. Decide for yourself whose ‘heritage’ and whose ‘history’ you are being shown.
THE SURREALIST GROUP IN LEEDS
Stephen Clark, Kenneth Cox, Bill Howe, Sarah Metcalf
21st March 1996