introducing the mtv generation to the art of war

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Indy Lifestyle Online
To get to the Royal Armouries in Leeds you follow road signs marked with a symbol which, glimpsed fleetingly from the car, looks curiously like a schematic womb complete with curly fallopian tubes. Double-take, and you see that the womb has a face; that it represents a sinister head with spiralling horns. Then you go inside and encounter the original, a hideous helmet from a suit of armour presented to Henry VIII, and perhaps the ultimate in unwanted presents: "Oh God, we can't throw it out. Emperor Maximilian gave it to me - I bet it cost a fortune. Put it somewhere prominent when he visits."

The grotesque helm has a grin like the radiator grille of a Ford Cortina, and a curving banana-nose with what looks like a pair of granny-glasses in gold perched on top. The tastefulness of the rest of the suit can perhaps be gauged by the fact that it was melted down sometime in the 17th century. The caption helpfully explains that the head may have been intended as a humorous portrait of the emperor. There are captions in the Royal Armouries in case anyone wants to do anything as boringly linear and nerdy as read one. The designers have done their best to get around the fact that what we basically have here are old guns in cases: they've spiced things up with films, computer games, firearms demonstrations, re- enactments, monitors, voice-overs and announcements, all creating an aural fog of war.

This is the noisiest museum I've ever been to, aimed at the MTV generation and based on the principle that all information should be accompanied by video footage of an angry man in tights running across a field. Each corner has its inadequately sound-proofed box running ear-splitting films on a constant loop. Ignorant armies are clashing all over the place. Monitors blare out information and music. You could easily spend your pounds 6.95 day ticket parking your bum on a padded bench watching a series of low-budget TV programmes in which the same horse falls clumsily, and the same bearded warrior catches a spear daintily in his arm-pit and falls in mock-agony to the ground.

In all the cacophony it is almost impossible to take in, say, the difference between Italian armour (er, bulbous) and Gothic (mm, pointy?). All around visitors are wincing, shaking their heads and stumbling round disorientated, because, of course, the people here are not the MTV generation but the very ones who are used to looking at things quietly and thinking about them. The curators have evidently agonised over how to get people who don't like a) history b) warfare c) reading, through their doors.

The guidebook frankly claims that the grand plan has been to prevent the "aching feet and the yawn of boredom which all of us have experienced from time to time in museums". The Armoury is afflicted by the scourge of the modern museum: squads of resting actors in bizarre costumes "bringing it all to life" for you. At least with this amount of heavy weaponry around, they don't encourage audience participation. Anyone who's been to the Museum of the Moving Image in London will remember the cringing misery of being coralled on to the Russian cinema-train by a luvvie in a flat-cap bawling: "Hyello! I yam Natasha, pliz to come in and see Soviet propaganda film." In the Tournament Gallery, two actors enact poll-axe combat in full armour, leaping, tripping and feinting in a nimble galliard which proves that unhorsed knights were not the wriggling inverted turtles of legend.

The Army Museum in Brussels is not housed in the latest Euro-design split- level glass-clad symbolic tower designed to create "a multi-layered experience". The only layers are likely to be in your own emotional response. There is a hall full of guns and cannon, and a hangar filled with aircraft, but in the main hall dusty cases filled with bric-a-brac stretch into the gloom. Few items are labelled. It would take the skills of a DNA-fingerprint expert to detect any pattern or order. There is a mouldering stuffed horse, which apparently played some significant role in Belgian history. Most mournful of all is the case which contains a couple of spadefuls of relics from the field at Waterloo, as if they were dug up yesterday: boots, belts, buckles, guns, flags, mementoes. It reminded me of the famous passage in Vanity Fair where the roving camera of Thackeray's narrative suddenly lights upon the body of George Osborne on the battlefield. And you don't need a soundtrack or a video to feel moved.

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