Our morning began with a brief visit to the Tower of London. Here we met building conservator Alden Gregory who took us behind the scenes in the Byward Tower. The Tower was originally built as the third gate of defence on the outer wall in the 13th century. Today, the two levels of the tower are not open to the public. This is because the head Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) lives on the top floor and the middle floor contains a medieval mural in need of constant monitoring and preventative conservation.
We had the opportunity to explore the middle floor and point out important historical features and conservation efforts. We noted that there were curtains in the room blocking out natural light and humidity monitors to ensure favourable environmental conditions. After thirty minutes we headed to the learning centre to hear a lecture on the history of the Tower of London and of the Byward Tower mural/room.
Our task was to consider how the public could access the room without compromising the conservation efforts. We had to develop three solutions and think of their pros and cons. We decided on two quite serious ones and a bit of a wildcard. Our serious options were a virtual reality experience and a specialty tour. The latter would be a pre-booked tour option that would only allow a small number of people in at a time on dates that suited staffing etc. Our wildcard was a family friendly theatrical presentation with staff members dressing as the mural explaining its significance. I would be very shocked if the latter was considered!
Although a quick session I feel as though we covered a lot of important material and had a fantastic time. Our next stop was Kensington Palace. We arrived after experiencing the best of London’s underground system. I am so shocked after the delays we faced we still managed to arrive only 30 minutes late! Kensington holds the most significant pieces of the Historic Royal Palaces dress collection. Historically, the palace has always had a strong connection to showcasing textiles and this is being maintained through current and future exhibitions.
On arrival at the Palace we were divided into two groups. One went with Isabella Coraça and the other with Claudia Williams, both of whom are curatorial assistants. We first went with Claudia for a tour of the Queen Victoria exhibition. After an hour or so we swapped mentors and went behind the scenes with Isabella viewing some of the clothing collection in storage. Amongst what we saw in the storeroom was the dress Queen Victoria wore at her first privy council.
The other two textiles we saw were an 18th century men’s waistcoat and an outfit from George IV’s coronation. The waistcoat was so beautiful and intricate made from such fine silk and silver thread. It was definitely worn in the Royal Court and would have signified great wealth and extravagance. People were not formally invited to court events in the 18th century. Rather, you’d arrive at the Palace and if you were wearing appropriate dress you’d be allowed inside. By appropriate I mean something that signified you were extremely wealthy. The waistcoat would have definitely allowed it’s wearer entry. It was also interesting to hear that the waistcoat had not been modified. As textiles were more important than clothing, many clothes were re-purposed and adapted to suit new styles. No modifications is very rare for the time period especially on pieces that are in such good condition.
The coronation dress of King George IV was quite theatrical. As George had a good eye for beautiful textiles, he insisted he design all the outfits for the coronation. The result was that everyone had to wear an outfit that resembled an Elizabethan costume. The outfit was interesting to say the least and provided a great insight into his character.
To finish, we had a short activity on object acquisitions. We were presented with the acquisition policy of Kensington Palace and three potential acquisitions. They were a dress belonging to Princess Diana, a 1920s court dress, and a collection of Queen Victoria’s undergarments. I argued for the dress of Princess Diana as it was in very good condition and had a strong connection to the Palace. It also had great interpretive capacity having been worn on numerous occasions. I enjoyed hearing the selections of others and their reasoning behind why one would work better in the collection than the others. As we soon discovered, all three textiles were acquired by the Palace.
Our two mentors so wonderfully worded the importance of textiles and why they are so significant. Textiles can really bring someone to life. Seeing their style, size, etc, is a strong way in which you can connect to them on a more personal level. Displaying textiles also allows for more interpretation as the basics don’t need explaining. People can see a dress is a dress so the focus can be on its significance and important stories.
It was great to have both of these opportunities at the two separate sites. I loved the textile-filled afternoon and I cannot wait to get back to my volunteering on the Dress Register when I return!