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….