Today was one of the highlights so far, and shows just how engaging an enthusiastic guide can be for an audience. It probably helped that the guide we had was not what we were expecting, and I don’t think we were what he was expecting either.
This morning we were up and out bright an early for our private tour of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Those of us who had been to London before, which was quite a few, had generally all seen the Tower and the Crown Jewels, however it was with a huge number of other people as you queue through the building to get on the little moving walkways which glide you past the display cases of glittering crowns. This experience was vastly different, although there were still the moving walkways, but they were turned off so we could stand and stare at the pretty shiny jewels for a while without being elbowed out of the way by other tourists.
I’m getting ahead of myself; let me start at the beginning. Our guide for the day was the Chief Warden of the Jewel House. We expected one of the iconic men in red uniforms commonly known as Beefeaters, or Yeoman Warders of the Tower, to be showing us around.
Instead we met Nivek Amichund, who I’d guess to be about mid-30’s and dressed in a very sharp suit with one of those little secret-service radio wires going into his ear. This guy was probably the highlight guide of our trip, well for me at least. He has a fascinating job and the always exciting air of mystery when he told us that he’s signed the Official Secrets Act and so there are some questions he can’t answer. He was also just generally a very friendly, funny and enthusiastic person. It was interesting to us to meet a heritage professional who happened to be male and under the age of 40 (a rarity on this trip, and in the museum world in general) and I think he was pleasantly surprised to have a group of 20 young women (mostly under the age of 30) who were very interested in everything he had to say.
Nivek met us at the Tower and guided us to the Jewel House. We were a little late in getting started, so didn’t have as much time as we’d anticipated before they were going to allow the public in. As per usual with these royal collections there are no photos allowed inside, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be content with my external shots of the Tower. Nivek gave us a brief explanation of the concept behind the re-design of the Jewels while walking through the exhibition space before actually getting to the jewels themselves. The exhibition was re-done in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to present the story of a coronation. Upon entry visitors walk into the Hall of Monarchs which shows graphics of all of the monarchs, including a dramatic gap between the executions of Charles I and the re-instatement of Charles II in 1661 to symbolise the period of the Commonwealth. From there you are taken through Sacred Symbols, The Coronation – a very visual experience of the process of a coronation which through music and pictures of previous monarchs including film of Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1953 the symbolism of the different elements is cleverly explained. This includes the procession, recognition, the oath, the anointing, investiture, crowning and enthronement. This section includes the regalia of the ceremony, robes, anointing oil and ceremonial swords before being faced with the cabinet of gorgeous sparkly jewels, at which point you step onto a little conveyor belt and slowly glide past the cabinets to be spat out the other end and carry on to Working Treasures which is masses of gold plate, jewelled salt containers and gilded baptismal bowls. Finally the last section is the Jewels Today which is great because it shows some of the specially designed, slightly worn and battered leather cases which are used to transport various crowns and accessories when they go out to be used. They are still used regularly, not just for coronations, but events including baptisms for the Queen’s great-grandchildren and when she opens Parliament.
Nivek regaled us with the history of some of the most notable jewels in the collection as well as various superstitions and legends including the Koh-I-Noor diamond which brings bad luck or death to any man who touches it, but good luck and long life to any woman. This has led to the men, including Nivek, refusing to handle it and the Crown Jewellers ensuring that it is always a woman who does the cleaning and maintenance of it. If you think about it objectively, the men who owned this gem lived in a time when it was normal to wear giant gemstones into battle and do other courageous manly things which often resulted in death/injury, while the women generally stayed out of the firing line so were more likely to survive to old age. Its last wearer, the Queen Mother, lived to over 100 so maybe there is some truth in it.
During this tour Nivek explained some of the challenges of the exhibition design, mainly the volume of visitors they receive and that many of the visitors are what they call ‘time poor and knowledge poor’. Visitors to the Tower are often on a bucket list trip – that is they are trying to see the major landmarks/icons of England, one of the most important of which is the Tower and the Crown Jewels. Many simply want to see the sparkly crowns and don’t have much knowledge either about the history of the jewels or their significance today. This led to the exhibition being designed with minimal text, better lighting, improved access for those with mobility issues and the use of audio and film to illustrate the significance of the jewels and regalia.
After our tour, when the public started flooding in, we were escorted to another meeting room where we got the chance to bombard our guide with more questions about the logistics of his role. Some of our questions were simply met with a polite smile and a shrug (generally when we were getting to nosy about access and security) but otherwise he was very forthcoming. Here’s some interesting things we discovered: - The crown jeweller is the only person allowed to actually touch the jewels, but someone else (usually Nivek) is always there to help out. - The Crown Jeweller also only has the contract for five years and then it changes. The jewels are only dry cleaned, meaning no chemicals or other substances are used. Once a year the team spends every night for two weeks in the Jewel House doing a deep clean, this is to ensure that they can remain on display during the day for the public. I’m pretty sure they’d be an outcry if people were told that no-one was allowed to see them for two weeks. - The Warders clean the galleries and look after maintenance and upkeep of the display cases, which are high-security to protect from bomb-blasts, anti-shatter and other hazardous events. Nivek did admit that their fire emergency plan was a bit trickier to carry out, and the only other information he’d give us was to admit that they do have a list of the top things that need to be saved in a fire, but he wouldn’t tell us which things they were. - There is no public funding used in the display or maintenance of the Crown Jewels, all conservation and exhibition costs are funded through the Historic Royal Palace Trust.
As well as all of this interesting jewel information we learned a little more about Nivek’s background and how he ended up as one of the youngest Chief Warder’s (his predecessor retired in the 60’s and held the job for 20 years). Nivek has worked in front of house, visitor experience and security areas for many of the major museums and galleries in London including the Tate, Victoria and Albert and the British Museum. He didn’t have a degree when he started, but studied and finished his degree in geography while working. He also mentioned he was thinking about going back to study in the area of the crown jewels and their relevance to contemporary culture. He loves the adrenaline rush of his job, getting to go places and see things that most people aren’t allowed to, even if he sometimes can’t tell his friends and family what he’s been doing at work. His role is a combination of high-level security, tour guide/interpreter and logistics. He is the man who receives the order from the Lord Chamberlain when some of the jewels are needed for use and he has to co-ordinate their safe transport in and out of the Tower. It’s also a bit of anything else which is needed in terms of exhibition and interpretation, conservation and visitor services. He’s also the first person of colour to be a (willing) resident in the Tower, he was in the process of moving into an apartment in the Inner Ward with his wife and new baby. He was kind enough to let all of us traipse up the tiny spiral staircase to check out his new flat and roof terrace. Here are some photos of the view from his rooftop.
After this whirlwind morning we all jumped into taxis to race across London to Kensington Palace. There we have an afternoon session with the lovely ladies who look after the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. More on that in the next post.