By Félix A. Alejos Cutuli
The history of the Spanish Army Museum starts in 1756 (three years after the founding of the British Museum) with the promulgation of the Royal Decree starting the project. The decree mandated that the museum was to be donated a sample or model of any military implement made in the country. The first collections were displayed at Madrid’s Artillery Arsenal until a Royal Order dated March 29 1803 that materialized the creation of the institution, sixteen years before the foundation of El Prado Museum. The first official location was the Monteleón Palace, in Madrid, a former property of the family of Hernán Cortés, Conqueror of Mexico. The splendid property also housed the Artillery Park and a Quartermaster’s Depot. In those times the museum was conceived more as an academic institution dedicated to the instruction of military officers than as a cultural diffusion entity. It immediately started to concentrate official collections and began acquiring private ones. On May 2, 1808 the Guerra de la Independencia erupted (Peninsular War for the English speaking world). The people of Madrid rose in arms against the Napoleonic occupation army, which was trying to evict the last member of the royal family still on Spanish soil. Artillery Captains Daoiz and Velarde, seconded by cadet de Rivera answered the call of Honor becoming the first Spanish military to join the resistance, first by distributing rifles, then defending the Museum/Artillery Park. The French gained access to the complex through a ruse. The artillerymen fell defending their guns and every survivor found on the premises was put to the sword. After that the museum was looted, although during the war the French occupiers preserved their collections from other museums.
After the end of the war and considering the sorry state of the Monteleón Palace, the museum was moved to the Buenavista Palace, also in Madrid, where, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of many people, it would thrive until 1841 when it was moved again to El Buen Retiro Palace, the complex that still houses the El Prado Museum. The fact that the palace contained the Salón de los Reinos (Kingdoms Hall) symbol of the military prowess of the Spanish Austria dynasty was determinant on the decision. Also the palace was the original home of several of the collections that comprised the original Army Museum back in 1756.
Fast forward to the 20th Century: 1908 sees the foundation of the Infantry Museum in the Alcázar de Toledo (an alcázar is a medieval fortress and/or royal residence). In 1929 there’s a failed attempt to consolidate all of the Army branches museums in Toledo. During the last civil war a handful of military and dependents took refuge inside the Alcázar, their siege becoming a symbol for both sides to the point that General Franco decided to stop the advance towards Madrid to liberate its defenders. After the war the Alcázar was rebuilt and a museum created to commemorate the feat of its defenders. From 1965 to 1969 there is a new attempt to transfer the Army Museum to El Alcázar de Toledo but the idea is eventually discarded as impractical, although there has been a delegate exhibition there for many years.
Finally in 2005 the government decided to transfer the whole museum to the Alcázar de Toledo. The transfer took 5 years (due to the complexities of re-cataloging and properly preserve the near 25,000 objects comprised by the collections and the difficult task of reconditioning a medieval building for its new use, a task further complicated by the continual unearthing of archaeological remains) and an intense polemic, as the decision left the kingdom’s capital without its Army Museum. Also the number of objects on display had been drastically reduced, although there are many on loan to other military museums and institutions. Currently, the Museum depends on the Ministry of Defense and its stated mission is to promote knowledge of Spain’s military history, to which end it has adopted the latest trends in exhibition and museum concepts.
Modern Small Arms on Display
Among the many historical artifacts, the museum hosts a carefully chosen set of displays of small arms. Next to the main lobby is the exhibit dedicated to the current modern Army, which has two displays of modern weapons in use by Spanish forces deployed on international missions (Iraq, Balkans, Afghanistan…) containing a G36E assault rifle, an Ameli LMG, an Instalaza C90 grenade launcher, a Llama M82 pistol and a Barrett M82 rifle together with a folding stock AK-47 as a representative of the individual weapons being used against Spanish Forces.
At floor 4 is the Artillery History Hall that houses a display of machine guns from some of the most early examples such as an 1865 Colt Gatling or an 1872 Colt Gatling Broadwell to still soldiering models represented by a cutout MG3S (MG42) or an ENSB Ameli, both of them still in use by the Spanish Army. In between are samples of a Christophe mitrailleuse from 1886, a Browning 1895, a Maxim-Nordenfelt 1897, a Skoda 1901, a Madsen 1904, Hotchkiss 1909, Maxim PM 1910, Revelli 1914, a cutout Hotchkiss 1914, Maxim 1917, a Breda 1931 inside its transit chest, and an MG 34 on an anti-aircraft tripod. In addition to the Ameli the Spanish designs on display are a very unusual: an Ametralladora Fernandez Gonzalez dated 1893 marked Fábrica de Armas de Placencia and an Alfa 55.
In the same floor is the Small Arms Hall illustrating the evolution of individual firearms from the first models to the 20th Century. The display of early breechloaders is particularly interesting, as is the display of Spanish Army metallic cartridge rifles and handguns.
The seventh floor is dedicated to the 20th Century, up to WWII, displaying weapons used by the Spanish Army but also by Spanish volunteers participating in WWII. The main contingent was the División Azul incorporated to the Wehrmacht to fight against the Russian Communists. On display are samples of the individual weapons used by the contingent, together with German Army uniforms with the unit’s insignia. Smaller contingents of Spanish expatriates fought on the communist side and also integrated on the Free French forces. Those are also covered by displays of uniforms and individual weapons. Of course the Museum dedicates a fair share of exhibits to the latest Spanish Civil war, inclusive of the Siege of the Alcázar, and the many weapons used in that conflict and the indigenous small arms developments undertaken after that conflict.
Address: Museo del Ejército, C/ Unión, s/n, 45001 Toledo, admittance through C/ Alféreces Provisionales, s/n. General admittance is €5.00 but, please, check the multi lingual website for details and updates on opening times and closing days, group visits, nearby parking lots, public transport, regulations (no pictures allowed) and updates on closing days: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Museum has audio guides in several languages, a public library specialized in military matters, a gift shop, restaurant/coffee shop and wardrobe and facilities for the physically impaired. The staff can speak foreign languages. A nice move has been to close the museum on Wednesdays as Madrid’s museums do close on Mondays. So Madrid’s visitors can take advantage of that for making a visit to Toledo on Mondays and enjoy this museum together with the many interesting sites inside this ancient city. As the museum is quite big, it’s strongly recommended to seek advice from the staff in case you have a time schedule. If you want to see the whole museum it is recommended to stay overnight in Toledo.
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