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.