A Visitor's Experience: The Frazier Historical Arms Museum
An article by Chad Arnow
The Frazier Historical Arms Museum opened in May, 2004 to great fanfare and has been a boon to arms and armour lovers in the lower Midwest and the southeast United States. No longer do we have to travel to the big cities of the United States or to the great museums of Europe to see fine antique arms and armour in person. Louisville now boasts a fine museum in the Frazier, one of the few museums in North America devoted solely to arms and armour.
The third floor, though, is perhaps what makes the Frazier most special. The Frazier has formed a partnership with the The Royal Armouries, Leeds, creating what has variously been called the Royal Armouries, Louisville and the Royal Armouries, USA. This unprecedented pairing has brought items from the Royal Armouries to Louisville, filling the third floor of the museum. Many fine examples of arms and armour will rotate through the Frazier, enjoying a stay of around three years, before they return to the UK. These artifacts trace the development of arms and armour from around the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to the early 20th century.
The Frazier Historical Arms Museum is situated on downtown Louisville's Main Street, just off of the Ohio River and a few easy turns from Interstate 64. Getting there was quite easy using the directions found on their Web site. Normal operating hours are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday-Friday and noon to 5:00 pm on Saturdays. There is a parking lot just behind the museum. Parking ($2.00) and one adult admission ($9.00) were well worth their prices.
The Frazier and Louisville's downtown are quite conducive to taking the whole family along and making a day (or more) out of the visit. On the same block as the Frazier is the Louisville Slugger Museum; a block further down is the Louisville Science Center. With all these options in the same area, it shouldn't be hard to find things your family and friends will enjoy even if they don't share your passion for arms and armour.
Viewing the Collection
The Frazier's staff and their printed guide suggest that you begin on the third floor and work your way down. This approach shows the collection to you in a mostly chronological fashion, beginning with the items from the Royal Armouries and continuing to the "Claiming of North America" and the heavily firearms-oriented displays from the Frazier's own collection on the second floor. The first floor has a room called simply "Arms and Distinction" and houses items of particular beauty and renown, again, with a preference for firearms. All of the galleries have a thoughtful layout, are uncluttered, and offer easy viewing opportunities for the items on display.
The third floor also features tableaus, or scenes of figures dressed in the arms, armour, and clothing popular during the period illustrated in that room. Near the main entrance on the first floor is an interesting tableau showing a late 14th century mounted knight meeting a mounted soldier of the 19th century. Since I'm currently very interested in the late 14th century, it was nice to see a well-done transitional harness. I'd love to quite literally be in that mannequin's shoes. These tableaus, which I don't believe will rotate back to the UK over time, use well-researched reproduction clothing, armour, and weapons, and offer three-dimensional insight into military life of their eras.
Daggers and knives were less well-represented, but still showed a nice variety, including a ballock dagger, rondel dagger, quillon dagger, two nice left-hand daggers, a very nice Indian katar and miscellaneous other examples.
There were many fine examples of armour on display, mostly from the 15th century and later. Full harnesses, cuirasses of varying length, and miscellaneous pieces abounded. One especially nice display had a Greenwich harness with pieces of exchange (pieces that could be swapped to change a field armour to a joust or tourney armour). Many high-quality helms, especially burgonets and close helms were also found.
Other Things of Note
The Frazier has a Historical Interpretations department, consisting of costumed actors who give regular presentations throughout the day on a wide variety of subjects. I watched J. Barrett Cooper (the Frazier's Head of Interpretation) and one of his colleagues give a brief but entertaining and enlightening demonstration of the 18th century smallsword techniques of Domenico Angelo. Other interpretations presented the day I was there included impressions of, among others, First Lady Dolley Madison, a bowmen from the Battle of Towton in 1461, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Joan of Arc. From what I saw, the costumes and content were carefully researched and the performances were both entertaining and informative. It seems to be common practice for the performers to take time after their presentation to interact with the audience, which only adds to the educational impact of the program.
Their gift shop, while being stocked with the normal knickknacks you'd expect to find in such a place (t-shirts, figurines, etc.), does also have some nice books available for purchase, including Chief Curator Walter J. Karcheski, Jr.'s book Selections from the Frazier Historical Arms Museum, Harold L. Peterson's Daggers and Fighting Knives of the Western World and other recent releases by Dover Publications.
The Frazier Historical Arms Museum's collections cover around a millennium of history and they are dedicated to educating the public about history through the study of arms and armour. Owsley Brown Frazier put it this way, "It's essential for us as individuals, and as a nation, to understand the forces which have shaped our times. Historical arms are the ideal artifacts for this kind of learning. They help open doors to the past which would have otherwise remained shut."
The Frazier Historical Arms Museum is well worth the trip for anyone passing through the area. For students of firearms of any era, this museum should be on your must-see list. For folks interested in European arms and armour of the High Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond, the Frazier, through its partnership with the The Royal Armouries, Leeds, gives us a look at wonderful items previously a hemisphere away. The Frazier's reasonable admission price, high-quality artifacts, historical interpretations, and commitment to education make it a valuable resource and a worthwhile place to visit.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
Since the writing of this article, the museum has refocused to become the Frazier Kentucky History Museum.
Additional photos can be viewed in our Frazier Arms Museum Photo Album.
I would like to add my personal thanks to Walter J. Karcheski, Jr., Chief Curator of Arms and Armor at the Frazier, for taking the time to answer my questions. I'd also like to extend heartfelt thanks to Michelle Gelback, Marketing Administrator, for her help and for providing me with great information about the Frazier, and to Barrett Cooper, for taking a few minutes out of his busy day to chat with me.
Photographer: Chad Arnow