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The Centre for Heritage Research, University of Leeds, in collaboration with the Royal Armouries presents:

'On a Knife Edge: the Ethics of Weapons Display'

A free public seminar:

Read a Report on this Seminar...

Tuesday October 21st 2008 3.00 - 5.30pm (optional tour 1-3pm)

Venue: The Royal Armouries Museum, Armouries Drive, Leeds,LS10 1LT

Seminar themes:

  • Do displays of combat weapons serve an effective educational role in helping museum audiences better understand their role and significance, or do they merely serve to glamorise the use of weapons?
  • Should displays of weaponry show more explicitly than at present the harmful effects of their usage?
  • What constitutes legitimate war booty, and what are the responsibilities of museums in relations to its ownership, and display?


Rob Lawlor (Interdisciplinary Ethics, University of Leeds)-'Beyond Technology'

Peter Smithurst (Royal Armouries, Leeds)-'Gun displays in museums - who calls the shots?'

Philip Abbott (Royal Armouries, Leeds)- ' the victory belong the spoils'

Jamie Dow (Interdisciplinary Ethics, University of Leeds).

Commentators: Sharon Macdonald (University of Manchester), Edward Spiers (University of Leeds)

'Beyond Technology', Rob Lawlor (Interdisciplinary Ethics-University of Leeds)

This presentation will focus on the seminar theme of whether the display of weapons serves an educational purpose or merely glamorise weapons. I will argue that the displays at the Royal Armouries do have an educative purpose, but will also argue that there is scope to do more. In particular, I think the most important thing that the Royal Armouries can do in relation to this, is to go beyond the technology - beyond the swords and the guns - to consider the context in which they were used. This is something the Royal Armouries already does very well in one area, reflecting on the suffering caused by weapons. I will argue, however, that this reflection on the suffering caused by war needs also to be supplemented by a greater focus on the history (who was fighting who and why) and the ethics of war.

One of the quotes in one of the exhibits states that we have to learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes. To live up to this quote, it is necessary to go beyond the technology to consider the political history and the ethical justifications (or lack of) relating to the conflicts. The Royal Armouries' excellent interpretations, I will argue, are the perfect medium for doing this.

'Gun Displays in Museums - Who Calls the Shots?', Peter Smithurst (Royal Armouries)

This presentation will examine some of the ethical questions of displaying guns in museums, against a background of a society in the midst of a 'gun culture', and view this alongside the ethical obligations of any museum-objectivity, integrity and balance. It will also argue that the 'gun culture' is a myth and therefore the questions of 'ethics' springing from it are often, at best, mis-informed. The case will be made that the gun can be displayed in a variety of contexts other than as a tool of death. It will highlight some of the ways in which Royal Armouries staff engage with the public to give them an understanding of firearms based on a healthy respect for their lethal potential, not a glorification of it. From this, the natural question arises-how far should we go in presenting the effects of gunshot on the human, or any other body? It will also look at some of the additional obligations placed upon museums in possession of 'modern' firearms, eg. their security, in which normal museum ethics are also obligations in law and non-compliance carry very severe penalties both for the individual and the institution.

'Shock and Awe-the ethics of emotion-arousal in weapons display', Jamie Dow, (Interdisciplinary Ethics-University of Leeds)

This paper first defends the view that arousing visitors' emotions can be a legitimate part of enhancing their understanding and apprecation of both the exhibits and issues related to them (war, conflict, peacekeeping, defence, deterrence, violence, etc). hence it is proper for museums like the Royal Armouries to consider when and how best to arouse the emotions of visitors. On this basis, the rest of the paper is devoted to developing a framework for determining how this can be done in a responsible and appropriate way.

This event was supported by a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise and Knowledge Transfer grant



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