aliens, Curator, Dracula, Eiko Ishioka, Gary Oldman, Harry Houdini, Henry VIII, How to Kill a Vampire, Indiana Jones, Jonathan Ferguson, Leeds Armouries, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Nancy A Collins, Royal Armouries Leeds, Sonja Blue, Vampire, Vampires
Today we have an interview with Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. He recently gave a talk entitled ‘How to kill a Vampire’ which I was lucky enough to attend and it was this talk which led me to approach him about a slot in Vampire month.
1) When the general public imagine a curator, I think they generally consider someone older and dressed in tweed. Have you ever found people surprised when you tell them your profession?
It happens less as time goes on, possibly because I’ve succumbed to a bit of tweed! But when I was an assistant curator at Edinburgh Castle I got that a lot.
2) What led you to study history and when did you decide to make it a career?
As far back as I can remember really. Indiana Jones was definitely involved! Along with a love of ancient Egypt and an interest in arms and armour, this led down the archaeological path rather than that of written history. It’s always been about the tangible, physical objects for me, though a couple of weeks in Somerset mud convinced me that museums were the way to go!
3) Who is your favourite personality from history?
Well, I should probably be referencing a firearms designer like Mikhail Kalashnikov, having been asked to comment on his recent death by the BBC. However, I think I’ll have to go with Harry Houdini, because whilst he ‘wanted to believe’ in the paranormal, but was also a sceptic and tireless exposer of frauds. I actually have a pet snake named after him!
4) What is the most interesting exhibit you have handled?
I should probably choose something like a gun belonging to Henry VIII himself, our incredible combination axe/gun, or the experimental grenade launcher I’ve been looking at recently. But my inner geek says that it’s an original ‘Pulse Rifle’ from ‘Aliens’. Movie props can certainly be as valuable as antiques, and increasingly are being seen as important pieces of material culture in their own right. The vampire kit sits somewhere between the two, and certainly ‘up there’ in terms of interesting exhibits!
5) Curator of firearms handling a Vampire Hunting kit – how did that come about?
I began my research on vampire killing kits in my own time back in 2007, before I began to specialise in firearms. But they actually originate within my field, from the antique firearms world. I would categorise them with ‘firearms curiosa’, one of many weird and wonderful things like belt-buckle guns and flintlock rocket launchers (yes, those exist). But of course they are much more than that; a physical way to access the ephemeral world of superstition and the supernatural.
6) You’ve studied both the real world folklore and the fictional tales of Vampires – is truth stranger than fiction?
In terms of defying our 21st century, western logic, definitely. In western fiction, vampires are created by other vampires, or through some deliberate evil or magical act. Yet in folklore, you might be ‘turned’ simply by a cat walking over your dead body! Fiction tends to be a bit more consistent with its lore, even if it’s consciously trying to subvert it
What do you think is the attraction for Vampires? Why are they such a popular topic?
It’s probably the sheer number of themes that the subject lends itself to; threat, death, rebirth, consumption, power, and sex. All but the last are shared with other monsters that prowl our imagination, but only the vampire, particularly the fictional variety, gets to look good doing it!
Share your favourite Vampire story
I have lots, but my all-time favourite has to be the ‘Sonja Blue’ series of books by Nancy Collins, partly because it was the first present my now-wife ever gave me, in the form of the ‘Midnight Blue’ book of collected stories. Though never mainstream, I think it’s been very influential. Dark, gritty, and ultra-violent; the antithesis of ‘Twilight’!
In a fight between all the greatest Vampires of fiction, who do you think would come out on top?
I like to think Sonja would be up there, but I’ve a feeling Dracula would still come out on top somehow. After all, he always comes back!
What about in some other contest such as sexiness or dress sense? Who would win that one?
Well, if we’re talking style, I think it’s Dracula again, as played by Gary Oldman. That’s thanks to those wonderful Eiko Ishioka costumes, from the fantastic red muscled wolf armour to the smart victorian suit and top hat..
Tell us about your latest work.
On the vampire front, I’m preparing for the ‘Seriously Staked’ vampire conference at Goldsmiths on March 8. In my day job, I am lead curator on the Armouries First World War project at Leeds. We’ll be providing more context and a more personal focus to the arms and armour of a conflict that defined modern warfare. There will be a physical exhibition and an online feature, both due to open in time for the August 4 centenary of the invasion of Belgium in 1914.
Jonathan Ferguson is Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. His research interests include their use, effect, and depiction in popular culture. His sceptical interest in the paranormal is more of a hobby, stemming from the gift of a Ladybird version of ‘Dracula’ at a young age. However, he is especially enthusiastic when the two things overlap! He has made several television and radio appearances, including National Geographic’s ‘How Sherlock Changed the World’, and BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Lifecycle of a Bullet’.
The Royal Armouries holds in trust for the public one of the finest collections of arms and armour in the world, from exquisite pieces of the gunmaker’s art, to the most functional military weapons, and from the medieval period to the present day.
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