Review: Kensington Palace Reopens After £12m Revamp

Kensington Palace is reopening on Monday, following an extensive refurb ready for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

What was once a stuffy and frustrating member of the Historic Royal Palaces to visit is now accessible, lively, intriguing and very, very modern. We took a look around ahead of the opening on Monday.

A smart new entrance “hub” welcomes visitors to the building from newly landscaped gardens, linking the Palace to the rest of Kensington Gardens. (Those gates, forever associated with Princess Diana’s death, are now a side feature, rather than the way in.) From the vestibule, you can follow one of four routes to four different displays: Victoria Revealed, Kings Apartments, Queens Apartments or Diana: Glimpses of a Modern Princess.

For the Diana section, “Glimpses” is a very good epithet. It’s not a large display. Follow a corridor lined with the frankly bizarre wallpaper by Julie Verhoeven (see above), and you’ll find a small room with five dresses on display. Two are by Catherine Walker; another is a black taffeta gown by Emanuel. We can’t help wondering if, for fans making a pilgrimage to her former home, this small slice of Diana’s wardrobe might be a little disappointing.

If you’re into Victoriana, though, there’s plenty to see here. Victoria Revealed is, err, a revelation. Through the 10 rooms where our longest reigning monarch was born, brought up and first met Prince Albert, you follow the chronology of the Queen’s life, from babyhood to marriage and monarchy and all those years of mourning. As well as her first pair of black silk booties, you can see her wedding dress made of Spitalfields silk, and her oldest surviving mourning dress. But this is no formal “display cases and detailed lists” museum. Instead, the story is narrated by Victoria herself. Phrases from her diaries and letters are etched into mirrors, printed on carpets, embossed into tables: this is Queen Victoria via Tracey Emin. Lighting, music and clever interior design evoke different eras of her reign. Stand at the top of the staircase: there’s a note about spotting the gorgeous Prince A for the first time. Glance up, and his dashing face appears, projected onto the wall where he would’ve been standing. It’s great.

A few rooms later, Albert is dead. The rooms are plunged into darkness. Here you can see the copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak, which was being read to the Prince Albert on his death bed, kept open at the point at which he died with a black-edged bookmark.

The exhibitions become more muddled in the Kings and Queens Apartments. We had less time to explore the installations by theatre-makers Coney, which might be why we struggled to get a handle on the stories told therein. It’s very beautiful – porcelain birds hang from the ceiling, love letters in bottles, soundscapes, more Emin-esque wordplay – and with more time we might’ve been able to get involved in the interactive House of Cards theatre show. It’s on our list for the next time we visit.

Kensington Palace is certainly transformed. It’s an incredibly modern, visual, feelings and emotions-led approach to displaying our history; museum curation for the Pinterest generation. Why tell us about Disraeli’s politics, when you can scrawl on a wall what someone thought of him? Yes, the restored rooms, the original portraits and the cornerstone objects are all still there, but rather than being officially labelled and part of a dry, detailed history, they’re surrounded by funky bits of modern interiors, moody theatrical lighting, or paper cut-outs by today’s artists. We loved it, but we can’t help wondering what fans of more traditional museums might think, or how quickly it might start to look dated.

Kensington Palace reopens on Monday 26 March. Tickets cost £14.50 for adults, £12 for concessions and are free to under 16s. Visit www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace for more information. We visited Kensington Palace on an early open day for the press. You can see more photos from our trip here.

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zoe

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    It was absolutly beautiful. The Orangery was amazing as well. Aren’t the gardens amazing as well?
     

  • Ehcmnl

    I was very disappointed in the Kings and Queens apartments displays – fortunately some very knowledgeable docents could explain the exhibits.  Also found the quotes on the mirrows difficult to read due to the lighting; the “whispering” by the windows was impossible to hear. EH

  • EW

    I thought it was terrible  – some atmospheric modern art installations
    but all displayed at the total expense of the spirit of this historic
    building. Genuine exhibits were few and labelling was almost
    non-existent (frstrating for those like me who have an interest in
    history! – isn’t that why most of us were there?) and many of the rooms
    so dark that you couldn’t even see them or their contents. Didn’t “get” it at all.

  • Garygary

    I agree with Zoe that the thematic approach to Victoria was good and although we liked some of the baffling bits and bobs in the Kings and Queens apartments we felt they distracted from the rooms.  The new artifacts were really hard to understand and with no labelling meant that we learned nothing
    .
    I had always liked Queen Mary’s bedroom; looking like nothing had changed since the late seventeenth century.  Now, you can’t see the room because your view is blocked by a tree of pretty boxes that have something to do with the Act of Succession.  Another room had a tent like structure in it that showed a cartoon of a bird or something in it’s ceiling but it was so big the decoration and effect of the orginial room was obsured.

    Wouldn’t it be better to have these large unexplained theatre propts and models made from junk material in a non-historic room?  I like to see these rooms as they were used at a moment in history,  but even the Victoria rooms made that difficult with writing all over the walls and furniture.

    We did make an effort to get into the new approach.  We played the card game where you pick up cards on your travels around the rooms.  Each card told you about someone who might be at court, hairdressers etc and each card gave you a letter.  When you got to  the exit you had to use three of your cards to make a 3 letter word. The exit room was full of yet more preproduction drawer units with the possible 3 letter words on each drawer.  There had been so many of these drawer units scattered through the rooms I felt the palace must have offered free storage to IKEA or Argos.  Anyway, we found the drawer with our 3 letter word on it, opened it and found that we were a surgeon and we could go to court.  Not sure if we learnt anything from playing this game, if game is the right word for it as surely ‘game’ implies some element of fun.  We felt more inclined to make a 4 letter word.
     
    Like Zoe, I was surprised that the Diana ‘experience’ was just a handful of dresses in a small box room.  Is that all they’ve got?  The Diana wallpaper in the corridor made her look hideous and must have been designed by someone who didn’t like her.

    The best thing about the changes is outside.  The new approach and entrance is really rather good as is the approach to the formal garden. However, once you enter and find the room to buy tickets it looks as if you are buying tickets to the circus, especially with the staff wearing their new comedy outfits.

    I just hope that this filling of historic rooms with artistic stuff and whatnots doesn’t become the new way of showing historic houses. 

  • David

    A complete waste of time and money. Deeply patronising, shallow, superficial, often plain silly – as in the heaps of luggage piled up at the bottom of a staircase to tell us of the removal of King James II – and all put together by people who seem to believe the public have no brains, insight or patience. Absolute rubbish.