Opinion: Peter Armstrong of Royal Armouries on why cultural partnerships matter

By Peter Armstrong, Development Director of Royal Armouries | 19 March 2009
a photo of a man infront of a glass tower

Peter Armstrong, Development Director of Royal Armouries

In 2004 the Royal Armouries opened its newest museum thanks to a unique collaboration with the Frazier International History Museum in Louisville Kentucky. It's the first time a UK National Museum has opened a ‘branch’ in the USA.

Here, Peter Armstrong, Development Director of the Royal Armouries, talks about this innovative partnership and why it should be adopted by more UK cultural institutions.

Why cultural partnerships matter

Museums are curators of the past, custodians of the icons of our history. But that does not mean that they cannot be imaginative, or even entrepreneurial.

The fifth anniversary later this year of the opening of the Royal Armouries’ US offshoot demonstrates this point. When, in 2004, the Leeds-based museum took over an entire floor of the new Frazier International History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, it was the first British – or indeed European – national museum to open a permanent collection in a foreign country.

Five years later, it is still the only British museum to adopt such an entrepreneurial approach, although both the Guggenheim and the Louvre have plans to open satellite operations in Abu Dhabi. We believe that the benefits that flow from cultural partnerships of this kind should be adopted more widely by other UK institutions.

These partnerships can – and should – be mutually beneficial: The Frazier has gained a collection of European arms and armour that does not exist anywhere else in America (North or South), while the Royal Armouries has gained in return a shop window for its collection as well as the opportunity to display objects that might otherwise have remained in storage.

Of course, cultural partnerships are not confined to foreign countries; they can operate just as well in the UK. Indeed, Royal Armouries has just entered into a new relationship with Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), the body which runs the Tower of London and Hampton Court among other key sites.

The Tower is the historic home of the Armouries, which was based there until it moved to its purpose-built museum in Leeds 15 years ago. However, when it relocated, it retained the White Tower, the original Normal keep, where part of its collection remains on display.

The fruits of this new relationship with HRP can be seen next month (April), when a joint exhibition – Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill – opens in the White Tower. In it, Henry’s reign is traced through his arms and armour. The exhibition, which runs until January 2010, will be the first time for 500 years that many of the objects will have been brought together under one roof.

So, while The Royal Armouries has undoubtedly demonstrated that museums can develop creatively and imaginatively, does this matter to the average man in the street?

The answer is that it should matter quite a lot. However successful Leeds is as a business destination, it is not yet included in most people’s lists of top ten tourist destinations. Yet the Royal Armouries attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, many of whom would probably not have any other reason to come to Leeds. Furthermore, the museum has been the vital catalyst for the regeneration of the whole Clarence Dock area, where it is situated. What was once an area of dereliction and decay is now a thriving community in its own right, with apartments, restaurants, shops and even a casino.

Yorkshire is now the home of one of the most popular visitor attractions in the North of England and this is why the development of cultural partnerships – in the US, in London or elsewhere in the world – matters.

Of course it is important to encourage greater interest in the objects held in museums’ collections. But it is equally important to attract more visitors to our museums by extending awareness of the quality of their collections. Cultural partnerships are, therefore, an answer to today’s challenge to widen the appeal of our institutions to enable them to reach new audiences.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:

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