This week as part of my course, we had a very exciting study visit… to Hampton Court Palace! Now being someone who specialises in the Tudors, it may be surprising to hear that I had never visited the palace before. So naturally, when I was told that we were going, I was so excited.
The day and the journey were long but I feel definitely worth it for what was in the palace and what was on display. We initially had a talk with the chief executive in HRP, Michael Day, and the head of operations at Hampton Court. They emphasised the importance of having an aim and message for an institution and how Hampton Court aims for 5 star service. I felt that this concept is really crucial to museums today. By having a message, it focuses all members of staff from front of house to curators, to those helping in maintenance towards the same goal. This thus makes the museum better in achieving its aims and consequently is passed onto visitor who experiences a brilliant, informative day out.
After this talk, we were then free for the rest of the day to wander around the palace. I found the palace itself absolutely gorgeous. The iconic red brick, with its twisted chimneys and elaborate engravings/ cravings were so intricate and just gave the palace a sense of awe that I feel buildings today lack.
I started my tour in the kitchens which I thought were dressed nicely with lots of object ‘props’ and having a real fire lit added something of a realistic tone to this section (not to mention a nice way to warm up on a freezing day!). However, I was disappointed with several things. Firstly, I would have loved to see some demonstrations of cooking, but I understand that they may only occur in busier periods during the year. Secondly, I felt there was a lot of ‘props’. If certain object were indeed real, then there was no indication of their nature. Thus, the whole kitchen had a feel of a reconstruction. This is not a bad thing as the palace may not have in their collection any cooking implements and, as a charity, may not be able to afford to acquire new objects. Reconstructions are usually very well researched and try to be as authentic and correct as possible. But if there were original objects there, it would have been really interesting to note this. Leading on from this, what really hindered the kitchen was a lack of signage. I had fortunately brought a guide book which gave a couple of paragraphs about some of the rooms, corridors and what would have happened in them. However, it was not always obvious where rooms began/ ended and thus which activities were completed in which spaces. I can imagine that this would have been worst for people without a guide book. To this group, with the lack of signs, one could identify some jobs that were done, like the spit roasting, but Fish alley, for example, would not have been understood for its real purpose and the rest of the kitchens would remain slightly mysterious. I feel if they put in some little panels around the rooms (either in the middle or at the start of them), explaining what occurred in the room and why, then at least visitors who did not buy the guide book will be able to understand these rooms better. Moreover, little cards could be set up around the course of the exhibition giving more detail about the types of tasks done and how they were done. In the summer months, this could be fleshed out by the live interpreter. It was a shame because I was really interested in the kitchens having done a future learn course in royal feasting over the summer. Moreover being the only real place in the palace focusing on lower class history, I feel this definitely needs to be addressed and perhaps redesigned in order to educate the visitor better. I know a lot of text is off putting for many people, but when there is no live interpreter or if someone is shy in asking an attendant, the significance of the kitchens is somewhat lost.
I then moved onto the Royal Chapel which was so picturesque and beautiful. The couple of things they did have exhibited, like the King James Bible, were nicely displayed but I am not viewing this with the same eyes as the kitchens because HRP do not have direct control over the space. It is in fact run by the royal household. But a must see if you go to the palace.
I next went into the Young Henry VIII exhibition and visually, I was really impressed. I loved the idea of using 3 chairs to symbolise Henry, Katherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey. These chairs moved around, closer together, further away etc. as the rooms went on; being a metaphor for the relationships of these people within real life. Moreover, the use of the chair in one room which showed the miscarriages of Katherine of Aragon, created such a sympathetic atmosphere, it was actually quite touching. It felt like the single chair next to the list of names highlighted Katherine being alone, and the quote on the floor emphasised how despite being queen, she was still human. Moving on to the aim of the exhibition, they wanted to show the young, strong, handsome Henry that can often be obscured by his middle aged/ later life antics and image. I would have thought that through documentaries like Henry VIII by David Starkey, and a more revisionist atmosphere within public history today (Lucy Worsley’s Six Wives), that most people would have been known that young Henry was different from his older self. But in talking to one of my course peers, I was shocked to learn that this was not the case. Thus the exhibition and its aim, have a raison d’être. Instead of challenging popular opinion directly, the exhibition subtly put forward young Henry’s personality through pictures such as Henry meeting Maximillian I, The Battle of the Spurs and The Field of Cloth of Gold. There was text on the back of the chairs too as well as quotes on the floors by the chairs and on the walls. These all tried to present Henry as a strong, handsome, virile leader. In all, I felt that they did a good job at achieving this as it was subtle, with not too much text, but what they chose had impact. The primary sources they chose to display all revolved around the same theme and thus presented a coherent picture of Henry. I did like how they portrayed Katherine, but I felt they were trying to create a lot of sympathy for her through quotes like ‘this twenty year I have been your true wife and more’ and saying how she wrote to Henry imploring him to be a good father to their daughter Mary.
Thus far I did like the exhibition but where I feel this exhibition and Hampton Court in general perhaps fell down was not expanding upon Wolsey. He was the one who built the palace in the first place. He played such a key role in the history of the palace and in the early history of Henry’s reign that I am very surprised that he is only really mentioned in the young Henry exhibition. I know funds are tight for the palace, but a way that they could open up more of the rooms and a reason to do this, could be to put on a display about Wolsey or a display about the history of the palace in general. Both would address Wolsey and the latter one especially would help to fill in another gap within the visitor experience.
During the rest of my day, I visited the Tudor apartments (the Great Hall etc.), William III apartments, the chocolate room and the Georgian story. Hampton Court’s story definitely covers a long time line from the medieval manor house to being opened as a museum in 1838. However, I feel that just a small exhibition detailing the history of the palace and how it developed would be a really good addition to what is there and help to tie in all of the different parts of the palace together. At present, I feel like they are separated entities e.g. this is the Tudor part, this is the William III part etc. There is nothing to really show how the palace developed (bar perhaps the Wolsey Closet). The exhibition idea above would help remedy this.
I feel how each room, in all parts of the palace, were presented very well. There was space for visitors to walk and view the objects, where on the wall of in the middle of the room. In the state apartments, it was well explained what each room was used for. Personally, having this minimalist approach, let the room speak more. By this I mean, if you had either lots of text or put a lot of objects in, the it might be confusing to the visitor. However, by keeping rooms minimalist, you let the room itself speak. If it was the Great Hall, you had tables in the centre, but you were allowed to be wowed by the vastness of the space. Similarly, when approaching the throne of William III, by having the room quite bear, it was like your eyes were drawn to the throne, just like your eyes would be drawn to the monarch. Thus how they have presented the rooms, I feel, is really effective as it lets the building itself and its room, give aspects of interpretation that would not be possible to put into words.
In all, I had fantastic day at the palace and did enjoy all of the exhibitions. They were mostly creative in how they displayed information, colourful with pictures and rich wall hangings/ paintings and informative in what they were telling. I felt like the space, the building itself, created a wow factor for the visitors helping with the displays, but also that the displays themselves were weaved into the building cleverly (e.g. information on the tables in the Great Hall). They could do more with the palace in terms of opening up more rooms and creating more exhibitions, but we need to remember that this is a charity and thus funding is scarce. I would recommend doing a bit of reading before visiting in order to truly appreciate and understand everything, but the splendour of the rooms creates an atmosphere that had me walking around, imagining I was in Tudor dress, surveying the goings on at court and the palace.
All images are my own and taken by myself.