The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

30 March 2011

Hop the Twentieth - Enchanting Palaces

Laura Butcher, The Enchanted Palace: Enraging Princess Diana's Fans

In Kensington Palace, the liminality of the redevelopment is figured in The Enchanted Palace, which supplies curious, and unexpected experiences, with what has often been seen as a very traditional space. Does this, in fact, work? Who is it curious for?

A liminal space, in the midst of development, with collections removed, the Enchanted Palace becomes imaginatively free. Artistic installations and animated exhibitions, tell almost-fairytales about lost Princesses. The room titles provide the majority of the textual interpretation, and many of these are emotive. It is the emotion and the objects which generate it with which you interact. Actors are there, in the spaces, not as docents or guides, but as parts of the exhibition. These rooms operate through the presence of many sensory elements - but these sensory elements also figure an absence. You hear noise which is not there.

This creates a unique between-dream-space, rather reminiscent of the uncanny illusion of Dennis Severs House. Houses such as this, and the Back to Back in Birmingham, use a theatrical approach to transport people into the realms of the past, and unite, on some level, lost, historic figures with the people of now.

Fairytales have universal appeal, and are polysemeous. This metaphoric quality allows the Enchanted Palace to engage with multiple meanings, but the fairytale trope also allows a certain element of simplification: the guide to the display can fit onto one side of A4 paper. The risk, of course, is that the histories become lost under multiple layers of interpretation. But I wonder about this layering - is it really a problem? I think, perhaps, that what needs to happen is a teaching, not of the languages of museum spaces or heritage sites, but of an opening up of ways of reading them, and making those differentiated ways of reading accessible to the visitor.

There were a number of practical conditions which motivated the extraordinary project. Kensington Palace, which has long sought to be inclusive and accessible, needed restoration and redevelopment, and there was a desire to retain the visitor figures and accessibility. They wanted to develop their audiences. But how far does this exhibition, with all its ideosyncracity, permit that inclusiveness?

Kensington Palace has attracted many visitors from overseas, who expect a traditional heritage experience, perhaps who want to tick the box, have the 'genuine' experience, or hunt for icons. But there are also those who reject visiting the palace, because they wanted something less traditional - and it is, perhaps, to these new and desired audiences, that the Enchanted Palace exhibition was directed.

One of the things which the Enchanted Palace has done is to revivify the visitor feedback. Whilst formerly the visitor book had contained almost passive responses such as 'nice,' 'peaceful,' now it engendered very emotive responses, negative and positive. Most found this a positive experience, and the words which appeared in the visitor book contained more emotional power, such as 'magical' and 'beautiful.' It is possible to see the value of taking a risk, to run the gamut of offending certain audience members, and the value of engendering any reponse, positive and highly negative.

What will the redevelopment really learn? Will it's return to a more normal mode of presentation alienate the new audiences developed? Will their old audiences forgive them and return? What of the magic can, will and should be retained?

This ability to see magic everywhere, this childhood quality which many lose, is something which we must learn to retain, and value more. There is, of course, another level of truth with which we can engage. The immersion, emotion, the irreality of the fairytale asks us what reality really is, and what really it is that we are talking about when we discuss facts, authenticity, and truth. We need, perhaps, in our professional, academic and everyday lives, to embrace elements of the real-unreal.

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