The story of Leeds museum packed with fighting spirit

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ITS opening was greeted with a mixture of despair and disdain by the culture vultures of London.

But now the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds is having the last laugh as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

For many years the main home of the nation’s collection of arms and armour was the Tower of London, a landmark with a story that can be traced right back to William the Conqueror’s reign in the 11th century.

But in 1991 there came the momentous decision to move the collection 275 miles north, to a brand spanking new museum in Leeds.

There was, inevitably, a horrified reaction from the South at the proposed break with tradition and its loss of “the tourist prize of the century”.

Yet the naysayers didn’t get their way and, in 1996, the new £42.5m Royal Armouries was opened by the Queen at Clarence Dock, since renamed Leeds Dock. Coming in the same year as swanky department store Harvey Nichols took up residence in Leeds’s Victoria Quarter, it was regarded by some as a symbol of a city revitalised after the economic struggles of the 1980s.

The Armouries was also hailed as a new kind of museum, one that boasted jousting tournaments, falconry displays, mock sword fights and demonstrations of weapons, as well as areas where famous battles like Hastings, Agincourt and Waterloo would be brought to life.

Master of the Armouries Guy Wilson said at the time: “We envision a place where we can display our collection in a modern, exciting and dramatic way. We want it to become a major social and cultural centre.”

The feelgood factor that accompanied the museum’s opening initially showed no sign of fading as it picked up a string of awards. In a poll, eight out of every 10 visitors said they would be back and an overwhelming 94 per cent said they would recommend the Armouries to other people.

It wasn’t long, however, before storm clouds were gathering over Leeds’s dockland.

Research carried out before the opening of the Armouries had predicted it would bring in one million visitors a year.

In 1997, though, just 425,000 people passed through its doors – and in 1999 it emerged that the company in charge of the museum was grappling with debts of £16m. That news was seized upon by opponents of the move north, with acid-tongued art critic Brian Sewell among the most venomous.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “In the capital, there is a steady stream of visitors for a museum to attract.

“But in a city like Leeds which is, I have to say, deeply unattractive, there are few other inducements for tourists.”

The Armouries, appropriately enough, came out fighting, with museum spokesman Nicholas Boole saying: “It’s rather sad that these people have to resort to such a low level of debate. We feel very confident about the future.”

Happily for Leeds, that confidence was well justified. The Department for Culture agreed to continue contributing millions of pounds towards the attraction’s annual running costs.

Ministers also decided to scrap entrance charges at museums holding collections of national importance.

By 2003, figures showed a 24 per cent rise in visitor numbers at the Armouries in the space of a single year. It has not all been plain sailing since then, with the museum’s popular team of horse minders, riders and actors being made redundant in 2011 during concerted efforts to reduce its budget by more than £3m.

Today, though, the Armouries is still going strong – proof, perhaps, that if you build it, they will come.