Yesterday I visited Kensington Palace as part of a conference tour. (http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/) 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 (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n04/hilary-mantel/royal-bodies) 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. (http://www.hrp.org.uk/aboutus/whoweare/history) 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?