Day 16 – Hampton Court Palace

The imposing entrance to Hampton Court

Today we were at one of the biggest and in my opinion best of the royal palaces.

Hampton Court was original built around 1515 for Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, who was a favourite of the legendary (and not for good reasons) King Henry VIII. As with most of King Henry’s favourites, he didn’t last all that long. Cardinal Wolsey dramatically fell out of favour with the King in 1528 and was stripped of all government offices and property. Not surprisingly this was due to Henry deciding to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to try and marry Anne Boleyn. As Archbishop of York, Wolsey was Henry’s first option of appealing to the Pope for an annulment of his first marriage. Wolsey was unable (some believe unwilling) to secure Henry’s annulment, and some reports believe that Anne Boleyn’s supporters were spreading rumours that Wolsey was deliberately trying to slow down proceedings.

Once Henry seized the Hampton Court Palace for himself he immediately set about making it even bigger than it was before. Later on King William III decided he wanted to go in competition with the French and expanded Hampton Court again, trying to rival Versailles. I’m afraid I don’t think it really worked. I’ve been to Versailles as well and that place is huge, with heaps more gilding, ornate details and fancy mirrors.  It also left Hampton Court with two different architectural styles – Tudor from Henry’s time and William’s Baroque. William ceased work on the palace in 1694 and it hasn’t had too many major changes since.

The Palace now is presented as the favourite residence of King Henry VIII and most of the fittings, and rooms are intended to show how the palace would have been used during his reign. We had a brief walk through the dining hall and a few other rooms before being launched straight into a workshop on preventative conservation.

Kathryn, the Preventative Conservation manager explained to how the Collections Care and Preventative Conservation team manage projects across all six Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) sites. The HRP work under four guiding principles – Guardianship, Discovery, Showmanship and Independence.

Guardianship – Aim to give the palaces a future as valuable as their past. To safeguard the sites for future generations.
Discovery – To explain the bigger picture, and then encourage people to make their own discoveries and draw links to their own lives and the world today.
Showmanship – Do everything with flair! Palaces have alsways been places of spectacle, beauty, majesty and pageantry. So aim to continue that tradition today.
Independence – A challenge to find new ways to do the work. A financially independent charity and therefore have the freedom to operate with their own point of view.

The conservation department is made up of a Treatment Conservation team and a Preventative Conservation team. There are 12 in the preventative team and they work across all six sites. They care for the moveable collections and decorative features of the buildings, including fireplaces, wall paper, bed canopies, tapestries etc. Their aim at all times is to display objects in their original context.
So the Cons team walked us through the risk factors in a site like the Palace and what they do to reduce or remove risk. The normal agents of deterioration are: direct physical forces, thieves, vandals, fire, water, pests, contaminants (like pollution and dust), radiation (UV, unnecessary light) and temperature and humidity fluctuations. There are a few approaches that can be taken to combat these risks which include monitoring the risk, care and cleaning, or blocking the risk as much as is possible. Blocking the risks can include developing safe-use procedures for frost, rain, building works, private functions, filming crews and other events.

The Historical Palaces and many other historic house museums (although on a much smaller scale) have a unique set of challenges that other museums and galleries do not. I’m familiar with some of these from working in a small historic house museum in Australia, but we probably have a slightly more lenient approach than HRP. For one, and this may seem obvious, the structures themselves are historically or architecturally significant. This means we can’t necessarily repaint gallery walls, or re-arrange the lighting in a room as easily as a museum gallery. We place equal importance on the care of the building and the collections inside it. The collections are also often a vital part of the building, there may be only one fireplace surround, or they are unchangeable or irreplaceable. This also means many things are on open display, often for years, and they may have acclimatised to the environmental conditions of the house. It also means visitors could create extra risk as people are less likely to remember that the furniture in a room, or the wall paper is equally fragile as the china vase on display.

The preventative conservation team have a never-ending job of regular cleaning and maintenance, as well as supervision of contractors and events and they use a risk level matrix which weighs up the impact of a risk (mild, significant or catastrophic) against the probability (rare, occasional or continuous) to allow them to prioritise their work. They keep detailed statistics of visitor data and number of times they reach the benchmark standards of relative humidity (40-65%RH), visible light (no more than 150k lux hours per year) ultraviolet light (maximum of 30 microwatts/lumen) and dust (3% area coverage per month, based on visibility and top 10 most dust sensitive objects in the palace). This allows them to bargain for better funding at the management level.

As anyone in a museum will know, especially if it’s managed by a non-museum based group, like local government or a commercial organisation, getting funding for the non-sexy areas of museum work (and believe me dust and humidity control is the least sexy area of museum) is incredibly hard. They always like to see the pretty stuff, the fancy new exhibitions and the children’s events but no-one likes to give money to conservation equipment or storage. The stats seem to speak to management in a way that no amount of “but if we don’t improve the cleaning schedule then that antique feature which the visitors love will be damaged beyond repair” will convince them of.

I particularly loved the two little booklets which HRP have designed to help explain to funding bodies and management why the conservation work is so important and how to protect their collections. One is titled Collections Management at Historic Royal Palaces – Keeping our collections and their stories alive. The other is Protect and Enjoy – Working together to make all our activities conservation safe.

They are a great quick reference guide for not just outsiders, but also other departments who work in the palaces. I have decided that it’s something I’ll draw up for our museum as well. I will be a great way to explain to new volunteers what each of our staff do, especially for our education and visitor services teams who often don’t see a lot of the background conservation work, or the collection stores. So that they understand why I get grumpy when people go to sit on our chaise lounge, or lean on the antique sewing table. It will also help them guide the visitor experience a bit better. These guides will can also be used to explain to our management what we are trying to achieve in museum conservation best practice and the resources required to do it. As I work in local government, the staff who manage our department are generally not museum trained and so I need to learn to translate museum terminology into local government language. Not an easy thing to do!

The HRP registrar, Rebecca, was kind enough to talk us through her main responsibilities. It basically boils down to she needs to know, what is in the collection, where it is at any given time and how it can be used (exhibitions, education etc). She also keeps detailed information on the previous owners, its condition and any stories associated with an object. Any failure in the record keeping can damage their future opportunities, resources and reputation. They have to be very meticulous in their standards, especially to keep their museum accreditation which is the benchmark for collecting institutions in the UK. Keep all these details they first had to ensure that there was a complete inventory of the collection, something all museums struggle with. They full inventory of their 93 storerooms took 18 months with 3 full-time staff and one part-time photographer. It is the first time that there has been a complete inventory which is a massive achievement for any museum. General museum development over time and the change of record-keeping systems and staff rotation means that records are often incomplete, inaccurate or lost.

The HRP are now preparing to condense the 93 storerooms into one facility to be manage access and conditions. That’s one warehouse I’d love to see inside!

Mika, the HRP Treatment Conservation manager gave us an insight into what her team does. They have 18 conservators working in four teams, three teams are textile specialists and the fourth manages the contracts for conservation on other objects. So really the only in-house work which is done on objects is tapestry and textile conservation. All other work for objects (statues, wood, gilding, armour etc) is done by external contractors.

Their aim is to keep the objects in situ to enable visitors to experience the site without barriers. The problem for conservators to limit the risk and need for intervention treatment. They try to treat in situ but if it is for major intervention the object will be removed (if possible) into the conservation studios. Where possible they like to leave things in view of the public as it also helps to demonstrate the care which goes into these collections. For example, with ceiling restorations there is an opportunity for scaffolding tours for people to see the paintings up close and explain the work being done. Where public access is not possible there is a lot of out of hours work instead (late nights for everyone). The team also do installations and removals, it takes at least 12 people to carry a rolled tapestry!

The textile conservation labs have been located at Hampton Court since 1912. After Queen Victoria opened the site to the public and people started flocking to see the site it started causing damage to the textiles, primarily the tapestries. A public letter to The Times newspaper lamenting the damage prompted a royal decree for the establishment of the tapestry workshops.

We were lucky enough to see inside one of the textile labs. But as is the way with the super-secretive museums with their precious collections – no photos allowed! Sorry everyone. L You’ll just have to trust me that seeing the massive tapestry rolls and the delicate stitching two ladies were doing to secure it to a stable backing piece was really fascinating. It’s obviously a job which takes an infinite level of patience and dexterity.

That wrapped up the fun for this excursion. We did have time for a quick explore of the beautiful gardens before finishing up for the day and heading back to central London.


Day 15: Part 2 – Kensington Palace 

The Gates of Kensington

The afternoon session of our first full London day was spent at Kensington Palace, home of Prince William, Duchess Kate and their royal children. It is also the home of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which is what we had come to see. 

We met Claudia and Isabella two of the Historic Royal Palace Trust staff who introduced us to some of the challenges of working with a costume collection. Kensington Palace is also a little bit of an odd one in the portfolio of Historic Royal Palaces in that it is the only occupied residence that they deal with. All of the other sites they manage are empty, and so they have a little more freedom in how they operate. At Kensington there are all the security, access and privacy considerations to add in when the various members of the Royal Family are in residence. Additionally the Historic Royal Palace Trust usually just manage the buildings, all the furniture and objects contained within the different sites belong to the Royal Collections Trust (remember the guys we met at Windsor Castle?). So for Historic Royal Palace’s to have a large costume collection is unusual and they need a specialist team of textile conservators on hand to ensure it’s all kept as it should be.

Kensington Palace was opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1898. It was part of an agreement she made with her government at the time. Queen Victoria was born at Kensington and always had a love for the place, she wanted to retain it as a residence for her children but her government was trying to convince her that it was too costly to maintain (it had fallen into disrepair) and they were trying to tear it down. She agreed that if she could keep half of it as a private residence then she would open the other half to the public and through visitor revenue subsidise its maintenance. 

The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection wasn’t started until 1982 when after Aubrey Bowden, an amateur historian and private collector, loaned Queen Elizabeth II a significant collection of court uniforms on the condition that it would be stored and displayed at Kensington Palace. In 1989, the collection was passed to Historic Royal Palaces, who have continued to expand and develop the collection, which also contains prints, sketches, historical photographs, letters, diaries and scrapbooks. The Historic Royal Palace Trust really started to develop it through focused acquisitions, donations and bequest. They also formalised the collection policy to dictate the parameters of what could be included in the collection. They currently have four main categories; ceremonial dress (things worn for royal ceremonies), royal dress (anything worn by the members of the extended royal family), uniforms (relating to Household staff and military) and clothes worn by anyone for court events. There are approximately 21,000 objects in the collection, including accessories (hats, shoes, belts etc), mostly stored off-site at Hampton Court. Much of the collection was moved off-site when a member of the Royal Family inconveniently requested to live in the apartments where the clothing was being stored. They do try to keep a few examples of each category at Kensington Palace as well as anything directly relating to events or life at Kensington. 

Claudia gave us a quick tour of their exhibition space and an overview of some of the challenges of displaying textiles. A challenge that I hadn’t come across before was floor vibrations. The high number of visitors in Kensington means that the upper levels of the palace can get lots of vibration from the foot traffic and despite things often being housed in very heavy cabinets some of the most fragile items can’t be displayed for long periods. The usual problems associated with clothing were also apparent, just on a larger scale. Clothing is in general the most complicated object to display in museums. There is a long list of risk factors which need to be managed. Light levels need to be monitored as the clothing will fade very quickly if exposed to natural light so nearly all the windows are blacked out. There also needs to be particular attention paid to the artificial lights used. The way the clothing is displayed and the weight distribution needs to be carefully managed so that stress is not put on any delicate seams or stitching. The Historic Royal Palace Trust have specially designed Perspex frames moulded to the specific shape of the clothing so that it just fits, and sits below the neckline so it appears as if the clothing is floating. This is to prevent distraction or the jarring effect that visitors can sometimes get when they see a modern mannequin in 18th century clothing. They don’t look right as the mannequins are clearly not the same proportions as the intended wearer of the clothes. Many small museums, my workplace included, would dream of having these purpose built mannequins however we don’t have the budget so we make do with either adjustable dressmaker’s dummies or recycled shop mannequins and try to pad them out to look as authentic as possible.

Many of the dresses on display for the current exhibition, Victoria Revealed, all belonged to Queen Victoria, and have to be periodically rotated out with different ones to prevent any damage to them from long-term display. The challenge of this is that the exhibition is intended to last for five years, but with one year remaining on it, and having already done multiple changes of dresses, they no longer have any dresses left in the collection which are relevant to the narrative, so some of them have had to be left in place for longer than originally intended. These dresses are being monitored very carefully to ensure they are not starting to show any signs of damage such as strained or torn stitching and colour fading. 

Isabella then took us to have a nosy around the collection stores in the Palace, and see what their limited storage capacity is like. She had kindly pulled out some examples of the different types of costumes they collect and we had a brief discussion about the social context and background of some of them. She also described how the Historic Royal Palace Trust is beginning to become more conscious of needing to have their own object collections to avoid the problems and restrictions which come with loan agreements. They have a solid collection with the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection but all objects at their other sites, as I mentioned before, are owned by the Royal Collections Trust. This severely limits the exhibition methods and duration of display when they are planning major exhibitions, so having their own collections would allow more freedom in terms of what is displayed, how it’s displayed and for how long. Although I do think that they might be a bit late to the game, if they start trying to collect things now they may find that there’s not much around, the Royal Collections Trust have nabbed most of it. 

The costumes shown to us at Kensington were the following –

1) An 18th Century Court Suit. 
They know this one was worn at Kensington Palace, but can’t verify who by. It is made with silver thread and Spitalfields silk. Like with most 18th Century life, looking fancy was your ticket to through the door. If you turned up at a court function in this outfit, you’d be welcomed with open arms, no matter if you were really not a member of the aristocracy or had no money. As we’ve learnt in previous posts, with the Georgians – looks is everything. 

2) An Elizabethan-style George IV Coronation outfit.
This King George is probably one of the most interesting, mostly because he was completely nuts. He was also a passionate collector and understood elements of fashion and design. He decided to design his own coronation, including his own robes, what everyone else would wear and how the ceremony would run. It was crazy expensive, but he didn’t care and he designed these Elizabethan-style pantaloons for his lords to wear in the coronation procession. The poor guy who had to wear this particular set was the Earl of Scarborough. 

3) Children’s shoes
 I’m afraid we weren’t allowed to photograph these ones as they belong to the Royal Collections Trust (part of the loan restrictions I mentioned earlier). However I can assure you that there were several gorgeous pairs of shoes which had belonged to the children of Queen Victoria. 
Our project for the afternoon was one that most of the girls on the course could get excited about – shopping. It was made even better when that shopping meant buying historic clothing. 
Isabella and Claudia gave us a hypothetical conundrum which faces many museum, well at least those lucky enough to have an acquisitions budget. The question was: how much money would we be prepared to spend in one go out of an annual budget?

We were given a budget of £10,000 for new acquisition to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection for the upcoming financial year. We were also told that there was an auction coming up which contained nine items of interest .Taking into account the Collections Development Policy and the strengths and weaknesses of the different categories within the Dress Collection we needed work out which of the nine lots we wanted to acquire and create a supporting argument for how much we wanted to spend. This was a real challenge as we all seemed to love shopping, but it was interesting to see how many of us were prepared to blow our whole year’s budget in the one auction, meaning missing out on anything significant which might come up for the rest of the year, and how many were more frugal, picking only a few items, and saving some money, just in case something else came up at a later date. As in many cases of budgeting, there isn’t really a right or wrong answer, it all depends on how much of a risk you want to take and how you justify your decision. 

We worked in pairs for this assignment so I’ll give you an outline of which items Gabby and I chose and what our reasoning was, but first a look into the contents of the Dress Collection. 
The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection consists of around 12, 000 items (depending on how you count them), these include the clothing itself and accessories such as shoes, hats, bags etc. 60% of these objects are female and 40% male. The Royal Dress category contains about 650 items assocaited with the royal family, dating back to the 17th Century. The Ceremonial Dress category is made up of about 1,000 items worn by officials and dignitaries undertaking ceremonial roles, deted between the 18th century to late 20th century. There are about 8,000 items in the Court Dress section, this is fashionable dress worn by the people who attended court functions at the royal palaces from c.1700-1958. Finally the archives include prints, drawings, photographs, letters, and other printed material all relating to the subject of royal or ceremonial court dress. 

We were given an abriged copy of the Collection Policy so that we could ensure our proposal would fit within the guidelines and adhere to the required criteria. There are six criteria for any new acquisitions into the Historic Royal Palace collection, and for the most part they relate to objects associated to the buildings themselves and fittings or decorative elements. As the HRP doesn’t generally have object collections there are really only two criteria which can be seen to effect objects and costumes, and the fourth deals with acquisition of replica items. They are as follows (in priority order):

Original objects with a direct connection to members of the royal family or significant historic figures associated directly with the palaces. These items should be illustrative of the activities that assocaite the figure with an individual palace. 

Works of art, objects or documents that directly inform the re-representation of the palaces for visitors. 

Replicas of missing, unavalable or destroyed original contents of the palaces where the original’s replacement is considered essential for the effective interpretation of a specific palace area. These replicas will only be added to the support collection, not accessioned unless special dispensation is granted. 

Now for the fun part. 
Gabby and I were much more cautious than some of the other groups. We decided on two items, coming to a total of £3,000, and save the remaining £7,000 for any future auctions which may come up throughout the year. We went for Lot 2 – A rare ivory satin doublet worn by a Gentleman Usher to the coronation of King George iV on 19th July 1821. It has a pencilled name on the inside of the right sleeve, but it is not clear enough to make out. This is disappointing as tying it to a specific person would increase its significance. As it is, it would strengthen the collection in terms of representation of male clothing, which currently is only 40% of the collection. It also fits in quite nicely to the Ceremonial Dress category, and has a good connection to the symbolism surrounding coronations.  

We also decided on Lot 3 – Coronation robes for a Viscount and Viscountess, dateing from the first half of the 20th Century. They were worn by Edward Knollys, Governor General of Bermuda during World War II, and his wife Magaret. Both sets of robes were worn to the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, but the Viscount’s robe could have been made earlier and may have been worn at the 1911 and 1937 coronations. These we thought significant due to being a matched pair, which is quite unusual to have been kept together, and being able to be linked to specific individiauls. They also fall in to the Ceremonial Dress category and can be tied to the symbolism and ceremony of at least one coronation, possibly more. 

Many of the other groups got very excited about Lots 7, 8 and 9 which were all dresses owned by Princess Diana and blew most of their money on one or two of these (they were going for between £4,000 and £9,000 each). This was partly because Kensignton currently has an exhibition on about the fashions of Princess Di and her popularity as a style icon. It also means the dresses are going for higher value than they might at other times as it is also coming up to the 20th anniversary of her death, and objects which relate to people within in living memory, especially a memory so well-loved as Diana, will be in much greater demand. 

At the end Isabella and Claudia informed us that this wasn’t necessarily a hypothetical situation they had dreamed up for us. It was a real scenario that they had encoutnered in the previous year, and interestingly they had also blown their whole budget in the one auction and tried to buy as many of the items as possible. So just goes to show, not everyone has impulse control, even museum staff, and when the opportunity is there to acquire something amazing for the collection, they will jump at the chance. 

Day 15 Part 1 – The Crown Jewels

The back door to the Tower.

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. 

The Yeoman Warders we were expecting to meet.

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. 

Her Majesty’s Jewel House.

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.

The view into the Tower
The view over the Thames

The rooftop door back into Nivek’s apartment.

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.

Days 12-14 – Museum fatigue sets in.

I’m going to combine the weekend together as it was all free time and quite frankly I was getting a little museumed out by this stage. We arrived in London around midday on Friday and after checking into our student housing in Russel Square we were free to do whatever we liked. I’ll be honest, many of us slept – a lot. We were all pretty tired from the constant moving around, a couple of people had been passing around a cold so weren’t feeling too great and we all enjoyed the few days of sleeping in and afternoon naps. 

I think many of us were also starting to suffer museum fatigue. Yes, this is a real thing and I know it seems highly unprofessional for a group of museum and heritage students and young professionals to say they don’t want to see any more museums, but it is clearly an illness which can affect us all. It was first documented as part of a visitor study in 1916 by Benjamin Ives Gilman and is commonly defined as the point at which a visitor begins to feel mental or physical fatigue during their museum visit. 

It can affect people who spend a long period of time in one museum, or people who visit a high number of museums in a short time. We had done both, in the space of 11 days we had visited 10 museums and spent an average of 5-6hrs in each one.  We were also set up to visit another 6 museums in our remaining 4 days. We needed to pace ourselves. Gradually you stop actually seeing the exhibitions and just start wandering aimlessly through the galleries, drifting  between whichever objects catch your eye. Eventually you find yourself lost and confused staring at a case of Victorian medical instruments which look more like the tools of the Spanish Inquisition wondering why people ever thought they were a good idea. Then the nice visitor services assistants come and lead you away to the cafe and try to locate your family,

Courtesy Google Images

So here are my tips to combat museum fatigue (now don’t take my word for it, everyone’s methods are different):

1) If it’s a big museum like the British Museum or the V& A – don’t try and tackle the whole thing at once. Check online for any special exhibitions they’re having or any stand-out objects/stories you want to see and head there first. It’s been found that many people will start off in a museums trying to read most/all of the signs and labels in the first few galleries and then as they get tired/bored they start skipping over things or just looking at the pretty objects. So start in the galleries of the things that really interest you and you’ll still be fresh enough to want to read the information and remember it afterwards. 

2) Take breaks – many breaks. Most good museums have seating spread around the galleries as well as near the entrance and cafe areas (although art galleries tend to be better at this than many museums). Even if you’re not feeling particularly tired, if there’s something pretty cool in one of the galleries, sit down for a few minutes while you look at it. Take a second to think a bit more about what it is, how it was used/designed/functioned and what purpose it had for people. It can be hard to do – for example there’s that many people crowded around the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum that your lucky to see it at all. My favourite type of things are objects which tell a personal story, something that can connect to an individual. I often wonder what their lives were like, did they ever think that their things would survive so long to be stared at by strangers in a museum? Would they have cared? Did they think they were important enough to want to have their things preserved? It’s also helpful to stop for a coffee break every now and then to recharge. You don’t have to go through the galleries at break neck speed. 

3) Talk to the people! Text panels and multimedia are all well and good, some people read them and enjoy them but others find it all a bit bland. Talk to the people and the stories come alive. The staff and volunteers at most museums are there because they love their jobs and they are passionate about their subject, they’re also usually a wealth of knowledge which won’t fit onto those small labels in the cases. If there’s something you’re curious about, talk to them. If they can’t tell you the answer, they should be able to find someone who can. They can probably also tell you the more scandalous and interesting stories which may or may not be completely researched, but which make a topic that much more interesting. 

4) Skip the queues – many places simply say to mentally prepare yourself for the queues. I say skip them entirely! Many big museums (those that aren’t already free) will have two lines for admissions/tickets. One will be for the people who turn up on the day and want to get in, the other is for people who have bought tickets in advance. Check your museums before you go. If you can buy tickets in advance – do it! That way when you turn up you can cruise past all the other people waiting outside in the sun and head straight inside. Another tip is to check for quiet times, a quick google can sometimes reveal the peak visitor times, so that you can avoid the crowds if you want. Some places will do late night openings once a week or month, they are a good time to get in while it’s quest, and even if it isn’t quiet there will generally be less kiddies around if you feel like avoiding them too. 

5) Take a tour – if you’re short on time or not sure exactly what you want to see have a quick look at the tours on offer. They can often be a good way of getting a ‘highlights’ look at the collection, or in the case of Museum Hack tours in the Met Museum in New York, a great way to delve into the scandalous back stories of some of the artworks, you can check out their options here: It also means you can leave knowing you have probably seen a good percentage of the “major” exhibits without wasting time wandering around trying to find them. 

6) Don’t be afraid to split up. Everyone likes to do things at different paces and if you are with a partner or group who goes at a different speed to you, don’t feel like you need to keep up or slow down to accomodate them. I happen to be married to someone who will quite happily spend all day in an art gallery, (once we arrived at MONA in Tasmania within 10mins of it opening and didn’t leave until they were kicking us out and locking the doors behind us). I like art galleries, but I’m not as passionate about art as he is, so we have an arrangement where we go our own ways and meet up every few hours to check in and see how the other is doing. There are usually plenty of other things that you can get interested in if you are first to finish (cake anyone?), take a walk in the gardens (if they have them), museums shop or cafe. We recently went to the Picasso museum in Granada, Spain and while I spent a little bit of time looking at the squiggly pictures I later discovered that in the basement they had an exhibition and archeological remains of the early Phonecian building which they had uncovered when renovating the museum, so that kept me happy while the Mr. spent time analysing the squiggly lines. Likewise when I nerd out over a royal palace and spend ages there, Mr. sometimes takes a sketch book and spends some time outside sketching the building, or wandering the gardens. 

7) Lastly if you are binge-ing on a high number of museums in a short space of time, alternate them with some fresh air and other things. Depending on your enthusiasm/dedication a museum a day can be a big task, take a day off in between and go and see some other sights. I know many of the big cities, London, Barcelona, Paris etc will have no shortage of museums for you to see but don’t feel like you have to get though them all. Pick one or two of the big ones which have the stuff you want to see and then maybe try a little local museum to get some of the smaller stories. There’s often some hidden gems around and little ones are less likely to give you museum fatigue. 

Well that’s it for this one, not much to report museum-wise for my free weekend in London, I did some shopping, explored the markets and caught up with some old friends. I’ll admit I did see one museum (couldn’t resist!) – The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett. It’s tiny, located in the attic of a church and only accessed by a tight spiral staircase but its great. It is one of the earliest operating theatres in Europe, built in 1822,  and a fascinating insight into early medicine. The museum officer there who conducted a short talk was amazing, she clearly knew her stuff but didn’t make the medical terms too technical or hard to understand. It’s very much a cabinet of curiosities, and one I’d recommend if you are in London. You can find out more about it here: 

Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garrett Museum

That was the last bit of relaxation – strap yourselves in for the final whirlwind week of museums in London coming up in the next posts. 

Day 11 – Woburn Abbey

Today was the day we all had a fan girl moment. We were in the presence of a wonderful historian, curator and lovely lady by the name of Tracy Borman and none of us could believe our luck. Tracy met us at Woburn Abbey, just outside of London, and talked to us about her career path, her work as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces (a role she shares with our other hero, Lucy Worsley) and a bit about her favourite subject, the Tudors. Sadly I didn’t have the presence of mind to take along a copy of her book to ask her to sign it, nor was I brave enough to ask for a photo. However many of the other girls were and Tracy was happy to oblige.


Helen & Tracy (image courtesy Helen Myers)
The official signature (image courtesy Helen Myers)

To start with Tracy is a bit of the eternal student, she has two degrees, a masters in historical research and a PhD. She has worked her way up through volunteering and working in various museum education jobs to what she described as her ‘big break’ as an exhibitions officer at the British Archives. She is now, not only joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces butalso involved   in the Heritage Education Trust which runs the Sandford Award to recognise excellence in the field of heritage education. Incidentally she gave us the tip-off that Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) run a paid (yes, paid!) internship for emerging professionals who have been accepted into a masters program where the HRP pays for your masters while at the same time as studying you are working for HRP. So gaining experience in a world renowned organisation, while being paid, and having your study paid for as well. I currently don’t have a masters, but with an offer like that I might just consider going back.

She also gave us an overview of her career as a writer, starting with magazine articles and working up to books. She usually writes about her specialism, Tudor history, and mentioned the struggles of meeting publishing deadlines while holding down a day job. She began by writing one book in three years, now her publishers are straying to get her to write three books in one year, sounds like writing is a hard job to maintain. She was gracious enough to give us her top five tips for writing:

1) Find your natural environment, wherever it is you work best. This doesn’t have to be home if there are too many distractions. For Tracy it is in the British Library.

2) Have a deadline – conveniently Tracy’s publishers provide these for her.

3) Research and write at the same time. Outline the proposal chapter by chapter and gradually flesh out the details as your research grows, consistently editing and reviewing. This is much more time efficient and less daunting than doing all the research (the fun bit) first and then looking at mountains of notes wondering how your going to turn it into a book. 

4) Set daily word targets. It helps to focus and progress the writing if you consistently feel like you are achieving a set amount. Tracy aims for 5, 000 a day, but recommended we start with a minimum of 3,000. 

5) Stay focused on the end result, whatever it is you want to achieve out of it. 

Naturally all this helpful advice was underpinned by subtle marketing for Tracy’s books, specifically her latest, The Private Lives of Tudors, which was inspired by diary and journal entries, letters and comments from visitors to Hampton Court. She had found through her work with HRP and being based and Hampton Court, that what the visitors were really interested in were not the politics and logistics of court life, but the more relatable interesting stories like, where was King Henry’s toilet? What did the Groom of the Stool actually do? Why were the ladies using lead-based makeup? Tracy described it as a Horrible Histories for adults. Conveniently the young boys, pages and footmen, serving at court were usually educated younger sons of wealthy families and they liked to write journals about daily life. The Tudor palaces were built to enhance the mystique and privacy of the monarchs, but privacy then was not as we understand it now.  The Tudor monarchs were never really alone at any point and the details of what went on out of the public eye is what Tracy has brought to life in her book. 

After being inspired by Tracy we had a chat with Matthew, curator for Woburn Abbey about his career path, the history of the Abbey and our project for the afternoon. The Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded in 1145. During the reformation in 1538, when King Henry VIII was shutting down monasteries so he could enjoy their money, the Abbots at Woburn refused to go without a fight. Unfortunately this meant Henry decided to seize the Abbey by force and ordered the Abbot to be hanged. The Abbey remained owned by the Crown until Henry’s death when it was gifted to Sir John Russel, along with several other properties. Later King Edward VI  made Sir Russel the First Earl of Bedford. It wasn’t until many years later that the 4th Earl actually decided to live in the Abbey, until then the family was enjoying one of the other estates which made up thier total of 90,000 acres of land. By the time the 4th Earl wanted to live there the Abbey was pretty run down and verging on ruins, so re renovated and rebuilt sections of it from 1620-1630.  Since then the family have been on the rise, being made Dukes in 1694. They’ve re-done the house several times over, post World War Two (when the house was requisitioned for military use) there was not much money or materials available for maintenance so in 1949 the Duke at the time decided to preserve the earliest sections by demolishing the newer sections to the house. This also served to stop the infestation of death watch beetle which was eating its way through the stone and wood. Another blow for the family was the post-war death taxes. When the 12th Duke died in 1951 the family were charged 80% tax on the property, causing his son to be forced to sell significant amounts of the house contents to afford to keep it. He also opened the house as a visitor attraction in 1955, one of the first manor houses to do so. The 13th Duke really embraced the PR and marketing side of things and was happy to come out and show people around his home, or work in the gift shop. The house is still lived in by the current Duke and his family, although they are a little more private than his father was. As the family are still there we, understandably, weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house, so once again its external and garden shots, sorry. 

For our task today we split into groups and each group was assigned an two exhibitions, each using different interpretation methods, of us to compare. We were asked to comment on the effectiveness of each style of interpretation, provide ideas on improvements or alterations and give feedback on whether we thought they were any good. 

The group I was in were assigned the temporary exhibition space which currently has an exhibition called Design of the Times – 400 years of interior decoration at Woburn Abbey and the gardens. It was a tricky one because the gardens are not specifically an exhibition, but they are an element of the house which need to be interpreted for visitors, and as we found at Stowe, garden design can say a lot about the people living there. The gardens at Woburn were created by Humphrey Reston in 1804, at the request of the 6th Duke of Bedford.  We found there was a garden trail to interpret some elements of the gardens, but not very much and without much assistance they just appeared to she a mix of pretty manicured garden beds, open lawns and more free-range plantings. 

Our feedback suggested a clearer indication of what was original garden design, and what were the newer sections as well as a kids trail. The signage they had contained a good mix of botanical information on specific plants for garden lovers and a bit of history. What we ought could be improved on was to add a motif or cartoon anima to the signs, perhaps a lady bird or an insect commonly found in the garden giving the kids something to look for, with a quick fun fact next to it. There were a few sections where we felt things could be better explained, such as the Chinese Dairy, while it was obvious that the building had Asian design influences, there was nothing to say why it was called that or even if it had ever actually been used as a diary. A group member also suggested linking objects or stories in th house with the gardens,  for example if there are paintings n the house which show some of the plants in the gardens, reproduce them on the signs for the garden and tell people they can see the original artwork inside. 

Our feedback for the temporary exhibition was slightly more critical. As we weren’t allowed to take photos inside it’s going to be a little awkward to explain but our main points came down to the following:


– the use of plinths to isolate and elevate objects and furniture was great to show the visual separation of objects as not just furniture in a room, but objects of artistic design. 

– the reproduction wall paper. There was a badly faded and damaged piece of the original wallpaper left in one wall of the room, next to it was a reproduction piece which had filled in the damaged areas and recreated what is thought to be the original colours, including their original vibrancy. It was great to be able to show how intense and detailed the wallpaper would have been. 

– exposed layers. The walls showed different stages of construction, from some sections showing the exposed brick, to the lime mortar, to the hessian backing which was attached to the walls and then the wallpaper or paint which was put over the top. These layers were amazing to see as it really gave a better understanding of how the decorative elements of a room were put in place. I had no idea that many houses, including wealthy houses, used hessian backing on the walls to attach the wall paper to. 


– the flow was quite disjointed, there was no clear path for visitors to follow and the text panels didn’t always make sense read in different orders. 

– text panel design and placement. There was a lot of text on the panels and they weren’t well designed. The positioning of some was quite high on the walls, causing people to crane their necks to read, or if they stood further back the text was too small to read. There was also empty space on some of the panels, which indicated they had the ability to increase the font size to ensure readability without increasing the physical size of the panels. 

– label placement. Some of the object labels were not in places which clearly indicated which objects they were linked to, creating some confusion about what particular objects were.  Some objects didn’t have labels, but were referred to in text panels which were on the opposite side of the room. 

– placement of the temporary exhibition within the Abbey. The exhibition was the first room you enter after the foyer where visitors pay for their tickets. It’s a confusing spot for that exhibition because it doesn’t give any context to the house or the family. It launches straight in to examining the design elements which have changed in the house over successive generations, but no real background on who the different Dukes who made the changes were. We felt it would be better placed either in a more central spot, after visitors have had an introduction to the development of the Abbey and context on the family, or at the end. 

The volunteer guide on duty in the exhibition did comment that she has noticed many people start in there trying to read everything, which many do when they first enter a museum. As many people are often tour groups on a time schedule, they are then forced to rush the rest of the house. 

One of the biggest successes that we found for the Abbey were their guides. The volunteer guides placed in each room were fantastic, they were knowledgable not just about the rooms they were in, but also the overall history of the family and the history. on many of the objects before the family acquired them. The lady in the temporary exhibition mentioned that the guides are rotated to a different room every half day so they get a change of scenery and don’t get bored just talking about the same space. Each one I spoke to was very enthusiastic and happy to answer questions but wasn’t intrusive in any way, they were happy to let people browse if they desired. 

Overall temporary exhibitions in historic houses are not particularly common but they are a great way for sites to examine different areas of their history or development in more depth. Many historic houses try to return the site to a very specific time period, and quite often there are more stories to tell which don’t always fit, having the freedom and space to do it is great, but we felt that it needed a bit more consideration in its execution. 

That ended the day for us at Woburn Abbey, so it was back to our accomodation in some lovely rooms over a 17th Century pub for a drink before heading off to London tomorrow. 

17th century rooms with low ceilings and exposed beams.

The joy of combining 17th century rooms with modern bathrooms means I can’t fit in the shower! All part of the historic experience. 🙂

Day 10 – Stowe House

Today began with breakfast in the State Dining Rooms inside Stowe House. We are spending our time here staying in the boarding house for Stowe school, which is attached to the manor house, and the students of the school are served breakfast lunch and dinner in the historic dining rooms. So we have been able to experience a bit of what it might have been like to live in a place like this. It’s quite bizarre having the estate to ourselves overnight and the ability to explore a nearly empty manor house after dark. 

The House Custordian,  Anna, took us for a tour of the house after breakfast and described how it was built in the 1680s as the ‘principal temple’ of the gardens (there’s about 40 other temples and follies around the gardens, each with their own metaphors and political undertones). The House was the home of the Temple-Grenville family who within a span of 200 years rose from being sheep farmers in Oxford to being the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos (although they had a few other titles along the way. 

The family were very political and their strong political views were reflected in much of the ceiling decorations in the Ouse, as well as through the gardens. The North Hall is the only room with a political ceiling left, it depicts Lord Cobham being handed the Sword of Victory by the god Mars. This is to reflect that Cobham was a soldier who fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough, it’s also a very direct way to tell visitors (being one of the first rooms you enter) just how full of yourself you can be. 

Interestingly we learned that the house and gardens were open to visitors from as early as the 1750s, when the Duke was still in residence and diary accounts reveal that the duke had formal guests at the same time as tourists were wandering through to see how the other half lived. Unfortunately the family went into decline and by the mid-19th century they were in huge debt, following a visit from Queen Victoria (because you have to spruce up the house when the Queen comes to visit). In 1848, three years after the queens visit they have one of two huge sales in which the family try to recoup some funds by selling off the contents of the house. Sadly after 40 days of selling things off they had only raised £40, 000, not nearly enough to cover the debts. In 1921 the last member of the family, Lady Kinloss, held the second of the big sales when she decided to sell the estate and its contents because the heir to the family title, and whatever fortune was left, had died during the First World War. 

The person who bought the estate in 1921 proved unable to do anything with it, so in 1922 it was sold again and this time was turned into a school. Stowe School opened in 1923 with Mr Roxborough as the headmaster. The school managed the estate by themselves for 67years, then the National Trust took over the management of the gardens and much later the Stowe House Preservation Trust was started to improve visitor access to the house. They re-opened it to tourists in 2015 and manage the restoration and interpretation of the building. 

Marvelling at the ceiling to the Music Room

We also had a chance to hear from Suzy, the visitor experience manager and Anna, the community and learning officer. Both ladies were lovely and gave us an outline of visitor numbers, types of tours on offer, constraints of offering tours during term time as the school uses much of the house for classes and alternative ways they are trying to entice people in. There are some special experiences that are run to attract more visitors including rooftop tours, behind the scenes tours and some volunteer guides will pick a specialist subject and run tours on that aspect of house history. 

The main challenge that is presented with this site is the ongoing restoration work. The House Trust was established in 1997 and started the first phase of restoration in 2000. The balance of conservation and housekeeping is difficult as the building is used in so many different ways, and let’s be honest teenage boys are not often kind to their surroundings. Part of the conservation work involves also telling the history of the school, how the students have used (and mis-used) the house contribute to its history, and sometimes it’s damage. 

Our task for the day was to develop a fundraising proposal for the restoration of the State Dining Rooms. We needed £950, 000 total for ceiling restoration (repairing and stabilising as well as restoration of paintings); original wooden flooring needed to be taken up, assessed, repaired where possible and relaid or replaced; joinery, dado rails, skirting boards and door frames all need work as well as replacing some non-original doors with jib doors; lighting; and finally attempting to re-instate replicas of three original tapestries which hung on the walls. 

It’s a massive undertaking with many considerations including visitor access, relocating the school’s dining facilities, staging of the project and online engagement.  We pitched a range of ideas designed to target different levels of fundraising. To start with the least sexy, the floors, we decided to approach fundraising bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and request the money on the grounds of public safety and access. Our big ticket items such as the ceiling restoration and tapestries would have a combined approach using low level encouragement such as donation boxes for regular visitors and an option in the house cafe and visitor shop to add £1 to their purchases to go towards the restoration. The second approach is to target higher level donors through strategies like a gala dinner in the State Dining Rooms before the work has started so that donors can see what needs doing, followed by a re-opening of the space with another gala dinner to see the completed works at the end. We had thought of charging about £200 pounds per head for the dinners, and by targeting the school alumni, Old Stoics, we could hopefully appeal to their sentimentality to preserve their old school for the future generations. 

After each group presented our ideas to the Stowe House Preservation team we had two hours to beautify ourselves in time for our formal dinner in the Drawing Room of the house. This was a great way to mark the halfway point of the trip and have the unique experience of dining in a manor house with the staff. We had also noticed earlier that another feature of this posh boarding school is that they keep about 40 beagles on the grounds. So we got permission to go and say hi to the puppies and all traipsed down to the kennels before dinner. I’m pretty sure this was the highlight of the trip for most of us. Here are the photos to prove it. 

Big puppies!
Little Puppies!
Formal dinner in the Blue Drawing Room

All the Open Palace participants prettied up for dinner.

Day 9 – Oxford and Stowe

This morning was a lovely relaxed morning exploring oxford on our own before being back on the bus to head to Stowe House for a garden tour with Patrick from the National Trust. Since today didn’t have any set activities, and they were both such pretty locations, it will mostly be a photo gallery. 

As I’ve been to oxford once before, and we’ve been covering so many museums in the last several days, I took a break from museums. I briefly poked my nose into the Ashmolean but spent most of my morning just wandering the streets and people watching. 

The outside of Magdalen College

We were lucky enough to stay in Magdalen College in Oxford university, unfortunately not the wonderful heritage buildings, we were in the 1970s dorms above sainsbury’s. However it did give us the perks of being able to wander the college quod and see all the lovely gardens and buildings when they were practically empty. We also got to have breakfast in their Hall, which is very Harry Potter style, so also amazing.

Magdalen College cloisters
The cloisters
Magdalen College Quod
Magdalen College campus

After roaming Oxford until 2pm we were yet again on a bus to our next stop, Stowe House. Stowe is an odd place as it’s part historic house, part National Trust gardens and part prestigious boarding school (we got told it was one step below Eton College. So the Stoe House Preservation Trust manage the house and have it open to the public, but the school also use it for classes and their dining hall and dorm rooms, and the gardens are owned and managed by the National Trust, but the school leases sections for playing fields and outdoor activities. It’s a very unusual but relatively harmonious between the three organisations. 

Our perk for this section of the trip was staying on site in the boarding houses so having the run of the manor house and gardens at night when there was no one else there. This afternoon was spent on a lovely walk through the Elysian Fields section of the gardens with Patrick, the deputy head gardener. He lead us through the Paths of Virtue and Vice and explained the symbolism of different sections of the garden and the various temples and statues which reside there. 

The Paths of Vice and Virtue represent the Greek god, Hercules’ struggle between these two choices. The Path of Vice is relatively easy, flat and winds through the garden of love. The temples in this area allude to stories of seductive women, sordid goings-on and partying to excess. Not for the faint hearted, but designed to show that vice is an easy way out. 

The Path of Virtue represents heaven on earth. The temples show good values, such as the Temple of British Worthies showing the thinkers and do-ers of Britain’s history. Of course, the virtuous path isn’t the easiest, so there are many bridges and hills in the way. 

The Path of Liberty apparently represents the political aspirations of Lord Cobham, the guy who designed the gardens in 1730s. As a simple metaphor it is the longest and hardest of all three walks, showing that politics is never easy. The temples along the way show Britain’s dominance in the eighteenth century. Hence the Temple of Concord and Victory celebrates Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War and Lord Cobham’s Pillar shows Cobham as a mighty Roman warrior, mostly because he had a superiority complex. 

Lord Cobham was a very political man who wanted to all his political opinions to hit visitors in the face when they came to his house. At the time, these symbols would have been pretty obvious to his friends and everyone would have known exactly what political affiliations he had, as well as how rich he was. Now we just see them and think ‘oh that’s a pretty temple’. It was really interesting de-coding all of these messages in the gardens and I think it would be great if there was a bit more explanatory signage around for the average visitor to give the gardens context. If we didn’t have Patrick there to helpfully (and literally) walk us through the meaning behind it, there would be so much significance lost on us. I’ll leave it there for now, with a few more garden pictures and delve more deeply into Stowe House tomorrow. 

Temple of British Worthies

Patrick explaining the gardens to us

Stowe gardens from the rear of the house. School playing fields in the front, followed by formal 18th Century gardens.

Day 8 – Windsor Castle 

Unfortunately this one will be a little light on for pictures. Due to security we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the castle, so you’ll have to settle for external shots instead, sorry. 

Today was a visit to meet Richard, Stephen, Paul, Hannah and other members of the Royal Collections Trust and Collections Care teams. We had a very interesting look at the public and private sides to the castle. Unfortunately no-one of particular significance was there as all the royals seem to have taken off to Scotland for the summer holiday. 

We had a very fun experience getting into the castle as we were told, firstly that there was a dress code of day dresses or pant suits for women, so we were all dressed up, and secondly that we all had to pass a security screening. So we got to skip mass the huge (honestly massive) line of tourists waiting at the public entrance, to a subtle little door down the side of the castle where we were only lowed in three at a time to receive our security passes, and then walk back past the line of tourists and straight through the main gate, which is flanked by some policemen who looked like they still needed a morning coffee. The tourists didn’t look particularly impressed that we skipped ahead so easily as well. 

Once inside we met Richard who gave us a quick run-down of a bit of the history, the castle was established by William the Conquerer as part of a defensive ring of fortresses around London after the Norman invasion. It’s currently the favoured residence of the Queen and she’s there most weekends. The interiors now are as they were designed by George IV, around 1820. The special thing about the Royal collections, both here and at the other royal residences, is that everything is there to be used. So the China galleries which display a dazzling amount of plates and crockery often have bits missing and a label up saying “currently in use”. Or when they loan things to other museums they’ll sometimes find that it’s been used for a state dinner two weeks beforehand. 

This need for access and function dictates how the collection is displayed, recorded and conserved. There are a huge number of people in the household staff who have access to these objects and so need to be trained in their care. We met Stephen, the head of Collections and Information team who summarised his job as “knowing what it is, where it is and how it is”. Basically they have a staff of 12 people to record the significance of the objects, their locations and their current conditions across all of the Royal Collection in all of the royal residences and historic locations such as the Tower of London. In terms of the make-up of the collection they have (roughly) 38% photographs, 19% books, 14% paintings and 27% works of art (which basically means anything else, including furniture etc). 

Documentation has been a tricky one over the years as different monarchs have created different inventories of what they collected. The first inventory that they have was conducted in 1639 by Abraham Vaderdoort, Keeper of the Cabinet Room for King Charles I. Unfortunately this poor guy got a bit obsessed about keeping track of everything and he committed suicide in 1640 when he couldn’t find one of the king’s miniatures. As a result of various systems, many things in the collection have different marks on them, particularly furniture as a few monarchs got enthusiastic about burning their brands into things. In one way ts is useful as it helps date when some of the earlier objects arrived, however from a conservation point of view it isn’t great. 

One of the Collections Care Stewards, Jade, talked to us about the challenges of working with the household staff, mostly housekeeping and livery staff, to maintain a stable balance between the conservation of a collection and its practical working nature. They train the housekeeping teams in techniques like conservation vacuuming for daily care and then the collections team do a hingher level of conservation cleaning themselves where necessary. They also train the household staff in object handling and safe ways of lifting things for daily movement of items for events etc. this also applies to service areas which might be used for events, spaces where food and drink preparations can occur to allow an event to take place in adjacent rooms. This can mean that things are being prepped in one of the drawing rooms, to service and event in the hall, and so the carpets and furniture in the drawing room need to be protected from accidents. They are consistently looking for ways to mitigate risks to the collection through preventative care. 

To keep track of everything they have a custom built collections management system which has been in use since 2009. This is used by the Royal collections trust, which has five curatorial departments, pictures, photographs, library, prints and works of art (everything else, including furniture, sculpture etc). The collections care and information team have 12 staff and always have one person attached to each of the curatorial departments. They also have a inventory manager attached to each site, when the household staff move objects around, they are meant to inform the inventory manager who will update the location information for that object in the database. However as she is only one person and the household staff often move things for events, or even the royal family decide they no longer want things in a particular room and move them, the message doesn’t always get back to the inventory manager and locations can become muddled. So approximately every five years the whole team will do a full inventory and condition report of all objects in the palace (it takes about 4 months) and so far they have found that things generally don’t move that far, normally just to the next room. 

It was a very special day, giving us an insight into how the Royal collections are used and managed and getting to meet the lovely people who look after them. After our workshop we jumped back on the bus and took off to Oxford where we were staying in Magdalen College at Oxford University. More on that tomorrow….

Day 7 Part 2 – Anne of Cleves House

This afternoon was spent having tea at Anne of Cleves House in Lewes. Here we met Joanna, the education officer who gave us information on the history of the house and its architecture. The house is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society which was one of the first archaeological societies, founded around 1896. It is now a registered charity which also manages several historic properties (many of which have been donated to the society). 

Originally this house belonged to the local priory and it then passed to Thomas Cromwell. When King Henry VIII was going through his phase of creating his own religion and shutting down all the monasteries, Cromwell was acting as his own personal cheer squad and bully-for -hire. Cromwell was the one going around auditing the monks and if they didn’t stack up then he’d shut them down. One of the perks of this job was that Henry sometimes allowed him to take some of the seized property for himself, and this house was one which Cromwell grabbed. 
The reason that it is called Anne of Cleves house is because it was part of Anne’s annulment settlement from King Henry VIII in 1540, along with several other properties. Anne was probably one of the luckiest of King Henry’s six wives because she managed to avoid being married to him for too long, she didn’t get beheaded, and she was gifted a significant amount of land and money which allowed her to live in comfort and be referred to as the King’s Beloved Sister. Anne was kind of the original tinder bride. She and Henry had never met, Henry had only ever seen a painting of her, which he thought looked reasonable. When she turned up from Germany to get married Henry wasn’t that impressed, but Thomas Cromwell convinced him it was still a good idea. So in January 1540 they got married, by July Henry had reconsidered and decided she didn’t live up to her profile picture. He blamed Cromwell for making him go through with it, so had the marriage annulled. Henry also beheaded Cromwell and gave most of what Cromwell owned (which was a lot) to Anne, because it’s not her fault she’s not pretty. 
We didn’t have an activity to do here, just had a tour and a nice tea and scones in the garden before heading on to Windsor for tomorrow’s visit with the Queen. 

Entrance to the kitchens

Upstairs bedchamber

They have dress-ups!

Day 7 Part 1 – Plastering in Brighton

This will be a split post as today was a half and half kind of day. The morning was back at the Regency Townhouse getting messy playing with plaster and the afternoon was a much more refined tea and talk at the Anne of Cleeves house in Lewes before carrying on to Windsor for the night. 

Firstly – plastering. So. Much. Fun.

We went back to see Nick at the Regency Townhouse, this time we received a crash course in the science behind lime and the methods of turning the lime source into quicklime (really nasty stuff, don’t play with at home) to then turn that into slaked lime or lime putty (much safer and easier to handle. This was important as many historical buildings are made with some form of lime mortar, generally putty lime but there was also the discovery of hydraulic lime which will set underwater, if that happens to be where you are building. 

During the 18th century the British and French were re-learning the properties of hydralised lime and came up with a ranking system; feeble is the weakest, only slightly stronger than lime putty, moderate is generally strong for all purpose use and eminent is the most resilient of the hydralised limes. Of course we have simplified the terms since then and they are now referred to as value 2, value 3.5 and value 5 hydralised lime, which I don’t think sounds as interesting. There were extensive chalk quarries in the outer areas of Brighton so plenty of lime to work with. 

Nick gave us a fantastic overview of Georgian building techniques and materials and how this has helped shaped their restoration methods. They have found the most effective way to repair plaster damage to the walls is to chip out the original plaster, smash it back up into dust, rehydrate it by mixing in a 1/3 lime putty and then plaster it back into the wall. I think it’s great as they are effectively repairing the damage with the original fabric of the building. There’s no real replacement components and it will match the surrounding fabric meaning it will behave the same way, no unexpected reactions with new substances. Nick mentioned it’s a bit of an experimental idea and they can have trouble when trying to explain it to funding bodies. 

Anyway, enough of the talking, on to the fun stuff. We were allowed into the basement/ servants quarters of the house to meet Paul and have a go at plastering. Paul is a volunteer who has been helping out with repairing the plasterwork on the walls and ceiling. Nick also let us have a go at the more decorative plasterwork which is used for the cornices and ceiling roses and other decorative elements in a room. I’ll let the pictures explain better.