Vienna usually spoils visitors with an interest in arms and armour with the Hofjagd und Rustkammer housing one of the best collections of its kind. However, the ‘Iron Men’ exhibition curated by Stefan Krause elevates this experience and offers a unique educational trip on the subject of armour that mainly spans from the 15th to the 16th century. A combination of harnesses, armour parts and art lead the visitor on an amazing journey.
The aim of the exhibition is to present the many functions and contexts of armour: a tool for war, a staggering display of power, a diplomatic gift, an inimitable fashion statement and a unique manner in preserving memory. Visitors will be able to see some of the best examples of field and tournament armour made for some of the most renowned princes of their time, armour designed for children and funerary purposes. Armour is discussed as a method of constructing identities, expressing masculinity and martial prowess. The often-overlooked subject of women in martial culture and in relationship to armour is also presented. The owners of armour, with their bodies imprinted in steel, are first presented as larger than life humans, then as everyday people that could afford unique carapaces that served multiple functions and besides power and wealth also often possessed a sense of humour, style, and an interest to the aesthetically pleasing. These qualities shift historical figures from two-dimensional beings to being somewhat relatable. Since fashion is often at the forefront the decorative methods of armour are explored in depth. The use of fabric as a layer underneath or over armour is demonstrated through amazing extant examples, as well as the use of precious metals and stones. The exhibition ends with past reimaginations of armour in previous centuries both as objects as well as in art, demonstrating how as objects they always spurred interest. Armour is presented as a method of interpreting intercultural barriers or a glorified past with examples of armour alla turca and all’antica.
Whereas the strongest part of the exhibition is unquestionably some of the most impressive examples of armour surviving, the texts accompanying are masterfully written and edited to complement the content of the various rooms. The precision, sensitivity and scholarly meticulousness is balanced with simplicity without dumbing down the content -a sin that many modern museums often commit- and sets the standard for exhibitions on the field of arms and armour. Without relying on the overused crutches of modern pop-culture or the conservative displays of previous decades ‘Iron Men’ shatters many of the norms that armour is usually presented in similar exhibitions, captivates the attention of the visitor, and invites them to imagine and learn.
The ‘Iron Men’ exhibition truly raised the bar regarding the presentation of armour both as an object as well as conceptual ideas. It is engaging, thoughtful and often reinvents how the subject is framed and presented, rendering it a useful educational experience for the general audience as well as for specialised scholars. An excellent catalogue was produced for the purposes of the exhibition covering all objects in it as well as featuring numerous essays on various topics related to armour.