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.