The Royal Artillery Museum is one of the world's oldest military museums. It first opened to the public in Woolwich, south-east London in 1820. However, the museum has its roots in an earlier institution.
The Royal Military Repository
The origin of the RA Collection is attributed to a decision to create a school of artillery in The Warren, later known as the Royal Arsenal. There was a need for an improvement in the artillery support which was increasingly important on the battlefields of the 18th century. In 1778, King George III tasked Captain William Congreve, a highly capable artilleryman, with setting up a “Repository of Military Machines” to instruct the officers and men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery in handling heavy equipment on the field of battle.
Captain Congreve was particularly active in acquiring items from abroad to establish a teaching collection. His original objective was “to provide practical instruction with the aid drawings and models, and for this purpose to form as extensive a collection as possible of everything tending to the science and practice of artillery, and to explain its progress.”
Following a serious fire in 1802, the Repository was moved to a site beside the Royal Artillery Barracks, where its staff continued to develop both its scientific methods and teaching collection.
The Museum in the Rotunda
In 1818, the Repository collection found a new home in the Rotunda, an elaborate marquee originally built by John Nash in the grounds of Carlton House to host events in celebration of the allied victory over Napoleon. After the celebrations, the Prince Regent authorised the Rotunda's removal to Woolwich "to be appropriated to the conservation of the trophies obtained in the last war, the artillery models, and other military curiosities usually preserved in the Repository." The Rotunda opened to the public as a museum in 1820.
With the rise in the popularity of museums through the 19th century, the collection in the Rotunda swelled to overflowing. Meanwhile, the Royal Artillery Institution was founded in 1838 and developed into an important body for the delivery of the teaching of military science, particularly artillery. As part of the Institution, a regimental library, and a small regimental museum were founded. Both prospered over time and became important collections in their own right.
Royal Artillery Historical Trust
In the last decade of the 20th-century ownership of the historic artillery and all other items in the Rotunda was passed to the Royal Artillery Historical Trust. The Royal Artillery Institution also donated many of its historical items to the Trust, principally its library and archives, but also its medal collection which had increased significantly during the two World Wars (the Regiment’s numbers reached almost a million men under arms during World War 2).
In 2001, the collection was moved to the new Firepower Museum at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Despite achieving designated status with the Arts Council England, which recognises outstanding collections which deepen our understanding of the world, the museum did not achieve the footfall necessary to make it financially sustainable.
In 2014 the decision was taken to close Firepower and create a new home for the collection on Salisbury Plain, close to the modern-day headquarters of the Royal Artillery at Larkhill, where Gunners have trained for over a century.
More information on the Royal Artillery Historical Trust can be found on their website
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