A story told in big bangs: The Woolwich campaign: the aim is victory and a great museum. Christopher Bellamy reports. Photographs by Herbie Knott

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The sight of the old Woolwich Arsenal is enough to make strong men weep. Sadly decayed, it sits - a dozen-and-a-half listed buildings - unseen by the public since they were built two centuries ago. At its peak, in the early years of this century, the Arsenal supported 80,000 people. It continued to make prototype weapons until the 1970s, and therefore remained hidden to public view. But when weapons manufacture stopped, nobody was very interested in the site, and the exquisite listed buildings were left to rot.

The Arsenal and the magnificent buildings that surround it , 15 minutes from the City, will - if the Royal Artillery's plans are fulfilled - have a future as stirring as their past. They will become one of the great military museums of Europe housing a collection which tells Britain's history - in books, documents and guns, a collection which vies with the Imperial War Museum's in quality and scale.

There are 300 guns, from early Tudor cannon brought up from the Mary Rose to a section of the Iraqi supergun intended for Saddam Hussein - which looks much the same, only bigger. The Imperial War Museum, gets about a million visitors a year at its four main sites - the Artillery Museum would hope to get 250,000. Because the Royal Artillery has been in just about every battle the British army fought since the gunners were founded in 1716, and has been intimately connected with technological developments, their story touches many aspects of history. The medal collection - 7,000 of them, hidden away from public view in drawers in the officers' mess - is another goldmine. The gunners have won 62 Victoria Crosses, of which 16 are in the Woolwich collection. The plan is to move them to the new site as well, where they can be properly displayed.

There is already an artillery museum at the Rotunda - an elegant palanquin turned into a permanent building by John Nash in 1819-20. But the exhibits are overflowing, piled together in the Rotunda or scattered around Woolwich Common. Four years after it was seized at Teesport, a section of Saddam's supergun sits sadly in the rain, protected by wooden packing and brown grease. The separate collection of books and documents starts with a book on Martial Policy from 1553, and William Bourne's The Art of Shooting in Great Ordnance, the first work in English, from 1578, but is housed in unsuitable conditions.

The plan is to concentrate all the collections in a controlled atmosphere in the historic Arsenal site. The Artillery Museum will use nine of the 18 listed buildings: the other nine will form a 'Heritage Area' run by English Heritage. But from there, the plan snowballs: the new University of Greenwich and the Greenwich museum also hope to move into adjacent areas.

The first initiative came from the Army in 1987, when a former Director Royal Artillery, Major General Tim Streatfeild, became concerned that so many national treasures were in danger of falling down, rusting or rotting away. The London Borough of Greenwich and English Heritage have joined forces with the Royal Artillery in supporting the highly imaginative project to restore the historic riverside site. The Royal Artillery heritage campaign needed pounds 10m to put the plan into practice, and has raised pounds 2m from serving and former members of the Regiment. That leaves pounds 8m, and the appeal was opened to the public on 25 May.

The Royal Regiment of Artillery is not one of those county regiments which have been amalgamated again and again by progressive Defence cuts. At the end of the Second World War there were a million members of the wider Regiment, divided into a thousand smaller regiments, operating the Army's most lethal equipment. The Artillery and Engineers used to train their own officers at the Old Royal Military Academy, on the Arsenal site, and from 1806, at the new building about a mile away on Woolwich Common. After the Second World war, the Royal Military College at Sandhurst - a far less academically demanding establishment - adopted the title of Academy.

The 'family' numbers many of the rich and powerful among its members, including Douglas Hurd, Sir Edward Heath and Sir Denis Thatcher. Its history is the history of the British Army and a fair slice of British science and technology. The oldest building at the Arsenal site is the Royal Laboratory Pavilions, which dates from 1696. In the 18th century prison hulks were moored off the Arsenal, and convict labour was used to handle the unpleasant substances which went into explosives and ammunition.

If present plans succeed, the new museum, housed in six of the listed buildings, will employ 50 staff. Touche Ross, who did the commercial viability study in 1992-93, estimated - conservatively, as such firms do - that it would attract 250,000 visitors a year.

The effect on the local economy would be dramatic, fuelling the regeneration of the neglected area to the east of Greenwich. Right on the river, it could be reached by water, helping expand the use of the super highway which runs, still largely unused, right through the capital. It could be linked to Greenwich, with the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum, and possibly to the Thames Barrier. Two of the listed buildings are octagonal riverside guardhouses dating from 1814-15, and, money permitting, a private jetty could be built between them.

David Evans, a retired Colonel, is the Chief executive of the Royal Artillery Heritage campaign. 'The whole thing about the Museum is it's not got to be a line of guns. We have the most incredible story to tell - the social history of Britain from Crecy, in 1346, where the English first used artillery.

'We've got to attract families. We've got to link into the national curriculum. It's got to be a place of learning, of study, of leisure.'

Individual exhibits will be part of displays, putting them in the context of their time. Museum designers Brennan and Whalley are already at work to give the planned museum the latest in museum design and

technology.

Mr Evans is keen to use the river, which he says is absurdly under-used compared with other national

capitals. 'Why can they do it and we can't? It's probably greener to use it as well.' The museum might run its own boat service if it made money but, he said, 'I think we'd rather go in with the council or link with other attractions along the river front.'

The neglect of the river-front has had one good result - the site, 15 feet from the river, can be made available quite cheaply.

'If we had a site of that significance in, say, Paris, nobody could afford to buy it', said Mr Evans.

Further information from the Royal Artillery Heritage Campaign, Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich, London SE18 4BH; tel. 081-317 9971. The present Museum of Artillery in the Rotunda, Repository Road, Woolwich, is open 12 noon to 5 pm on weekdays, weekends 1 pm to 5 pm

(4 pm November to March).

(Photograph omitted)

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