Royal Artillery Museum

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The Royal Artillery Museum
round brick building with a tent-like roof
The Rotunda, Woolwich: home of the museum from 1820-2001
Established 4 May 1820 (1820-05-04)
Dissolved 8 July 2016 (2016-07-08)
Location Woolwich

The Royal Artillery Museum, one of the world's oldest military museums,[1] was first opened to the public in Woolwich in south-east London in 1820. It told the story of the development of artillery through the ages by way of an unrivalled collection of artillery pieces from across the centuries.

The museum had its roots in an earlier institution, the Royal Military Repository (established in Woolwich in the 1770s as a training collection for cadets of the Royal Military Academy); items which were once displayed in the Repository form the nucleus of the Royal Artillery Museum collection.

The museum continued in Woolwich until 2016. Following the closure that year of 'Firepower – The Royal Artillery Museum', the museum's historic collection has been placed in storage pending the establishment of a new Salisbury Plain Heritage Centre, scheduled to open in 2020, which is being publicised as the new 'Home of the Royal Artillery Collection'.[2]


The Royal Regiment of Artillery was established by the Board of Ordnance in 1716. It began within the Warren (later renamed the Royal Arsenal) in Woolwich, which for some 250 years was Britain's principal ordnance manufacturing facility. In 1741 the Board opened a Military Academy within the Warren to train prospective officers for its Artillery and Engineer corps.

The Royal Military Repository[edit]

The old Royal Military Academy building housed the collection from 1802-1820

In 1778 Captain William Congreve set up a training establishment within the Warren, as an offshoot of the Royal Military Academy, to instruct officers in handling heavy equipment in the field of battle. His 'Repository of Military Machines' (soon given the title of Royal Military Repository ) was housed in a long two-storey building alongside the Carriage Works: cannons used for field training were stored on the ground floor while smaller items and models used for teaching purposes were displayed upstairs. Training initially took place on land to the east of the Warren and later moved to the woods to the west of Woolwich Common, close to the new Artillery Barracks, which are known still as 'Repository Grounds'. The Repository building itself was seriously damaged by fire (probably arson) in 1802. Those items that were saved or salvaged soon found a new home in the old premises of the Royal Military Academy, which itself moved from the Arsenal to Woolwich Common in 1806.

The Museum in the Rotunda[edit]

The Repository collection found a new home in a building of unusual provenance, secured for this purpose by the son of the Repository's founder (also named William Congreve). The Rotunda was initially erected in London in 1814 as an elaborate temporary marquee in the grounds of Carlton House. It was built for a ball given by the Prince Regent in honour of the Duke of Wellington in anticipation of victory over Napoleon Bonaparte; designed by John Nash, it was made to resemble a military bell tent.[3] After the victory celebrations were over the building languished without a use; but in 1818 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"[4] and it was rebuilt on the eastern edge of the Repository Grounds.

In its new accessible location the Repository became 'an early and free permanent public museum'.[4] Inside, trophies and weapons were arranged around the central column with display cases all around containing models and smaller exhibits;[5] larger artillery pieces were displayed outside.

The museum continued in the Rotunda through to the very end of the 20th century, despite attempts at various times (including in 1932, 1953, in the 1960s and 1980s) to move it elsewhere. Eventually accommodation was secured for a new museum within what had been the Royal Arsenal after the Army left the site in the 1990s. The Royal Artillery Museum in the Rotunda closed in 1999 (though the Rotunda continued thereafter to house the museum's reserve collection until 2010).


Part of the museum collection as presented in Firepower's "Gunnery Hall', with 20th-century pieces on the ground floor and older items upstairs

Firepower – The Royal Artillery Experience opened on Royal Arsenal Riverside on 27 May 2001; it was housed in a set of buildings that had once been part of the Royal Laboratory where ammunition was manufactured on the Arsenal site. Its collections combined those of the historic Royal Artillery Museum with those of the former regimental museum of the Royal Artillery, a collection of uniforms, personal belongings and other artefacts which had been curated since 1946 by the Royal Artillery Institution and housed in the former Royal Military Academy building on the Common.[6] (The Royal Artillery Institution Library and Archives were also moved from the RMA in 2001 into the former Royal Laboratory administrative block adjoining the museum,[7] which was named the James Clavell Library.)

The museum told the story of the Regiment, and of the development of Artillery, in a series of galleries encompassing past and present military service. The former Paper Cartridge Factory (an innovative iron-framed building of 1855) housed the main Gunnery Hall and Historic Gallery, in which examples of guns from the 15th through to the 20th centuries were displayed. A new entrance building told the story of 'The Modern Gunner', and there was also an interactive 'Field of Fire' gallery.[8]

The museum closed in 2016 having consistently failed to meet its target of 200,000 visitors a year.[9] It had suffered financial problems for some years and was running at a deficit, kept afloat by cash injections from the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the Royal Regiment of Artillery and others.[10]

Future plans[edit]

It is planned that the Royal Artillery Museum collection will be displayed as part of a Salisbury Plain Heritage Centre in Wiltshire in 2020 (the Royal Artillery's regimental headquarters having itself moved from Woolwich to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain in 2007). In the meantime, the exhibits are being professionally stored and conserved in a museum store nearby, but there is no public access.[11] At Woolwich a permanent Royal Regiment of Artillery gallery is planned as part of the Greenwich Heritage Centre on the Arsenal site.[12]


  1. ^ Michelin Green Guide: London. Michelin Travel & Lifestyle. 2012. 
  2. ^ "Our vision" (PDF). Salisbury Plain Heritage Centre. Retrieved 16 August 2016. 
  3. ^ "List entry for The Repository Grounds". Historic England. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  4. ^ a b "Survey of London, volume 48: Woolwich, chapter 7" (PDF). Bartlett School of Architecture. Yale Books. Retrieved 14 August 2016. 
  5. ^ "1828 illustration". British Museum. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  6. ^ "Collections level description" (PDF). National Museum of Scotland. Retrieved 15 August 2016. 
  7. ^ "Listed building description". Historic England. Retrieved 16 August 2016. 
  8. ^ "Listed building description". Historic England. Retrieved 16 August 2016. 
  9. ^ "Firepower Museum to leave London home". The Museums Association. Retrieved 16 August 2016. 
  10. ^ "Firepower museum's cash lifeline". South London Press. Retrieved 16 August 2016. 
  11. ^ "Firepower closure". Retrieved 16 August 2016. 
  12. ^ "Making Woolwich - a new permanent exhibition for Greenwich Heritage Centre". Retrieved 16 August 2016. 

Coordinates: 51°29′03″N 0°03′11″E / 51.4842°N 0.0530°E / 51.4842; 0.0530