Wildboys and Westwood

In Historic Houses on October 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Aaaaand after a stressful few months of thesis-writing and kicking the jetlag (well, a couple of weeks kicking the jetlag at least), we’re back and we’re in London for what I think is the greatest temporary exhibition the world has ever seen.


This has to be put into context a bit. Kensington Palace is a famous royal residence, run by Historic Royal Palaces (who operate the Tower of London, Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace and Banqeting House as well). It was home to the reigning monarch until George III moved into Buckingham Palace, and since has had a host of famous residents, from Queen Victoria (who spent her childhood there) to Princess Diana; the Palace became a place of pilgrimage for Diana’s devotees following her death:

Kensington was a fairly standard historic house until recently – beautiful, choc-full of history, art, and architectural wonder. However (and I say this with love), historic houses can be a bit…samey. Fashion is fashion, whenever you live, and if you visit enough of these places there is very little that you have not seen somewhere before. On top of this, and in comparison with its big brother and sister, it was certainly rather behind the times. So, a £12 million project has begun to rejuvenate Kensington, which will re-open fully for the first time in three years in 2012 as “The Palace for Everyone” – better visitor facilities, more access to the building itself, more shops, more cafes, more to do.

However, this left HRP with a serious problem – what to do whilst 2/3 of the Palace is inaccessible? They decided to go a little bit mental, it seems…

Wildworks theatre company have been drafted in to create a whole new world at Kensington – I say drafted as if this happened recently. The Enchanted Palace has been running  since 2009 – the answer to the problem of having a mostly-building site for a palace has been addressed creatively, with performance, modern art, interactivity and plenty of things you wouldn’t expect to see in a museum.

Now there has been a lot of bad press for this exhibit, mainly from very, very angry punters who were expecting to see the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, or at least something to do with Diana that went beyond one outfit and a poem. This seems to have been a real problem for HRP – but actually, it hasn’t been. I’ve written two papers on this exhibition now, and actually, they haven’t had a bad response at all – I have seen the data! It’s all been down to a communications mess-up (which, as a proud and unashamed marketeer, I find really frustrating). When you’re going to do something really different to what you usually do, managing expectations is essential – you need to let people know that they can’t mooch around the galleries with an audioguide in historic house serenity. For example, take the Tripadvisor Page; the “owner description” gives no indication that something is different, and actually says that the dress collection is on display. Lies! If only they had communicated the change a little better, and more importantly, communicated that actually, feedback elsewhere has been pretty awesome.

An aMAZING dress by Vivienne Westwood (having been on Mastermind with Viviene Westwood as my specialist subject - no really - I do acknowledge a bias here)

Despite the negative reactions online and occasionally elsewhere, it has been a success! Increased visitor numbers and all sorts of other winners abound. Imagine what successes they might have had had they dealt more effectively with Tripadvisor (which would have been easy)! I personally love it – the Enchanted Palace is what museums should strive for – a bold experiment that risks something, but dares something more. Museums just don’t do this very often – they have no funding (HRP has a £55million budget), no resources (it’s still a royal home and in the most visited city in the world) and no connections (is Vivienne Westwood a bff of your local museum? Thought not). That said – wow. Kensington pushed the boat out to the Bahamas on this – whatever you think of the execution, you HAVE to applaud their moxy. Bravo, brave sirs. Bravo.

My message here is simple. It’s impossible to explain the Enchanted Palace and do it justice, so I shan’t try. Just know that it is madness – wonderful, creative, engaging madness. If you are a devotee of the traditional historic house visitor experience – and there is nothing at all to be sniffed at about that – then  I recommend you save your visit until 2012 and the grand reopening. However, if you work in museums, you want to work in museums, you study museums, you like museums more than is normal (or, like me, are all of the above) then you must go. It is a masterclass in creative programming, and whether you love or you hate it, you will learn a lot from it.

There are only two months left to experience the Enchanted Palace – do, if you can. I very much doubt we’ll see anything so experimental for many years to come.

  1. […] using with reckless force, and having a proper laugh). I hate to harp on (wait, no I don’t) but the Enchanted Palace is a great example of how to make this kind of interactive approach work in an historic house. […]

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