Shadow play at Kensington Palace

Yesterday I visited Kensington Palace as part of a conference tour. ( I was very impressed with the heritage interpretation at the palace, which was revamped relatively recently so that each wing focusses on a different time period and the royal stories associated with it. It also attempts to portray different emotional valences to reflect tragedies and attachments of the royals who have lived there. I am not given to feeling sorry for the constrained lives that royals live, but i will admit being moved to be told that Queen Anne had 16 pregnancies and no children who lived past the age of ten. As Hilary Mantel writes ( royal women’s bodies are a thing apart. The written interpretation only mentions her weight gain and gout in later life, the horror of the pressure and failure to breed was imparted by our guide.

Another thing that was passed over in written interpretation but discussed by our guide was the relationship with the current inhabitants. The tour began by describing the palace as an uninhabited royal home. Historic Royal Palaces, a charity, manage a set of these ‘homes’ as public attractions, though they remain the property of the Crown and are not public resources. ( As our guide pointed out soon after, however, Kensington is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They spent millions renovating his great aunt’s apartments before making it their family home. The windows in the ‘public part’ of the palace that overlook their apartments have been obscured so that they are not overlooked or on display. These windows indicate an important fact about Historic Royal Palaces and heritage in Britain more broadly that is rarely discussed.


The Duke and Duchess are the most public members of the British Royal family. When their first child was born the media frenzy over the ‘future King’ was intense. Their presence in the palace is not a trivial or incidental matter. Their presence reminds us that palaces still play a role in the construction and maintenance of power in British society. That is the primary function that palaces still fulfil in our landscape. It is their presentation as heritage attractions that is incidental. Our presence as ‘visitors’; the fantasies that we are guests; play a part in how palaces function. Heritage bolsters this power relation.

The Cupola room at Kensington Palace has been interpreted around courtly music and dance. As in many other rooms, stiffened costumes evoke the long dead. A shadow falls against the wall. When the music plays, the shadows begin to dance. A clever piece of interpretation, also evokes this question for me.


Who are the shadows in this place? The royal family? The heritage industry? The visitors?


3 thoughts on “Shadow play at Kensington Palace

  1. Slightly disconcerting image of headless model in foreground but head on the shadow – very clever!

    The question you raise surely applies not just to Royal palaces but any stately home where the family still reside e.g. Chatsworth. and I wonder if it raises issues about ‘homes’ as museums. Do we find the visitor experience more fascinating because people still live there.? Certainly visiting the smaller tenanted National Trust properties has created lasted memories of the place, perhaps more so than the larger ‘museum’ type ones. ( Perhaps this is because the tenants come out of the shadows and share their passion for the place. Would your experience have been different without the guide at Kensington Palace?). As we have become facinated in the the stories of the people behind the scenes ( the shadows if you like) in the past (the Downton Abbey effect) it is perhaps the stories of the people behind the scenes who live and work in the places today that will become the history we are fascinated in the future – the story behind the head guides perhaps becoming equivalent to those of the house keeper and butler. Will we want to know the story of the modern ‘cleaners’ in the way we seek the stories of the maids and footmen of the past? Have roles really changed or is there just as much a hierarchy in large homes and palaces as there has always been, we just call the roles by different names ( where the family still live in the house there will always be i suspect some distinction between owner and staff but is it true also in those houses run by organisations?)

    So your question is fascinating – who are the shadows and how will they feature in our future interpretation of the homes we love to visit.

    • thanks glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, I agree that it isn’t only palaces, but stately homes and indeed there is an increasingly wide range of inhabited heritage. It serves to remind us that heritage is about people not things. I feel that the fascination remains focused on those with power but I could be wrong. In this case I feel like the continuing inhabitation is obscured, the site presented as if the ‘dance’ were over, when it isn’t. In contrast to a place like Versailles.

  2. Pingback: Royal Heritage – a chance for contribution | Heritage for Transformation

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