Leeds is a city rich with history and tradition. Whilst progressive and evolving, it is equally keen to preserve its past. This can be seen all around town, at centuries old buildings and remains, such as Lambert’s Yard, Kirkgate Market, Corn Exchange and Kirkstall Abbey. And it is evident in a trio of museums across the city too, learning, sharing and celebrating historic stories of local, national and international interest.
One such place that is renowned for bringing ancient artefacts to modern minds is the Royal Armouries. Primarily focused, as its name suggests, on arms and armour, the Armouries both hones deep into its expertise and diversifies out to other areas of interest. This is a space which is filled with passion for the past and steeped in niche knowledge, passing it on to visitors in an array of interesting and exciting ways.
The main museum displays permanent curios for aficionados of warfare and military memorabilia, with a vast 70000 strong collection, including rare and impressive items such as 14th century weapons and 16th century armour of Kings. It is a historic step back to times which appear best left in the past, but the way this part of history is presented here is exceptional and exhilarating.
The museum also hosts changing exhibitions, often aimed at the young of age or young at heart, with the likes of film props and comic collections to view up close. Running since the end of October, Make: Believe is an exhibit of arms and armour in popular culture, displaying items from cult and classic movies. The lineup of Star Wars, Aliens, Lord of the Rings, and Monty Python & the Holy Grail tells you all that you need to know about the quality of recent history on show.
The Armouries real skill is bringing its collections and stories of the past to life. This is done in particular at their regular talks and demonstrations. Daily events include Saxons vs Vikings demos and First & Second World War talks, whilst the recent Action Heroes showcased stunt fighting and combat, inviting the adventurous to have a go. For all ages, the Royal Armouries is a unique visit, one which educates and entertains, and one which children and adults alike leave in awe.
Continuing the theme of a seemingly sombre subject matter making for a marvellous museum visit is Thackray Medical Museum. This equally unique place displays the history of medicine, which it turns out is a remarkably fascinating subject! The building itself is of historic interest, dating back to 1858 and grade II listed. Thackray has called it home for over 20 years and invites visitors back beyond its beginnings.
Initially to 1902, when Charles Thackray opened a chemist shop in Leeds, before becoming a major medical company. Then back again, to 1842 and life in Victorian Leeds, with an interactive walk through city slums, discovering illnesses and treatments. Surgery, childbirth and amputation are all brought to sharp focus, emphasizing how different both ailments and medication were in previous decades and centuries compared to now. It is thought-provoking stuff, occasionally gruesome, yet always enjoyable.
As well as over 50000 historical medical objects, the museum hosts lectures and temporary exhibitions, although it is currently closed. But fear not! For this is only due to a huge redevelopment which will undoubtedly result in a Thackray Museum rejuvenated to its historic best. Expected reopening is in Summer 2020, and you might want to set this future date to visit the past.
Completing a hat-trick of museums providing huge historical interest in Leeds, Armley Industrial Museum gives an insight into the industrial heritage of this city and beyond. The site is apt, on a 200+ year grade II listed former woollen mill, and the experience tells the tale of Leeds’ connections with wool, textiles, railways and engineering, and how each industry has helped to shape this city.
An exploration of the space uncovers many unexpected delights, from the Palace Picture House, a tiny and charming 1920s cinema, to the Colour Garden, a bright and blooming outdoors filled with flowers used to create traditional dyes. The Power House homes an impressive range of steam engines, Media in the Mill celebrates film, photography and printing, and the Textile and Tailoring Galleries display and demonstrate spinning wheels and tell the story of Leeds’ influence on fashion. Changing exhibitions focus on specific subjects too, with the long running Leeds to Innovation continuing throughout next year, and Leeds Wool Festival returning to its spiritual home every summer.
Armley Industrial Museum, like Armouries and Thackray Medical Museum above, are all hugely fun and educational visits, but they are more than mere fleeting attractions. These are real pieces of Leeds history that are all well worth learning about.