Royals Revealed: Kensington Palace reopens

  • 21 March 2012

Kensington Palace reopens this spring with a brand-new set of displays that tell the stories of its famous residents. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, describes what's been going on behind the scenes...

Kensington Palace reopens this spring witha brand-new set of displays that tell the stories of its famous residents. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and an Art Fund Prize judge, describes what's been going on behind the scenes...

What do you do with a problem like Kensington Palace? For many years, the palace has fallen into the category of ‘secret treasure’. Most Londoners didn’t even realise that you could visit its historic rooms and state apartments, while its intimidating, high-security appearance from the ever-popular Kensington Gardens did nothing to encourage them.

However, those who did locate the entrance and penetrate the building found amazing art treasures, Baroque interiors of international importance, and the splendours of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. On the other hand, many found their visit completely exhausting as they slogged through 30 or so rooms presented in a non-chronological order.

In 2005, Historic Royal Palaces decided to do something about these obstacles. Kensington Palace needed opening up, both physically, so that people could use the building better, and intellectually: we needed to spin some coherent stories out of 400 years of royal history.

Palace re-presented

Six years and a successful fundraising campaign later, the palace re-opens, in Diamond Jubilee year, with a temporary exhibition about an earlier Diamond Jubilee: that of Queen Victoria, in 1897. The new permanent displays will be arranged as separate discrete ‘routes’, so that you can choose to visit either the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th century. All of them will branch off from a huge new welcome and orientation space, at its centre a sculpture made out of woven, glowing wire, which alludes to the lace of Queen Victoria’s wedding veil.

A tour through the ages

The earliest route, chronologically speaking, will explore the ‘Queen’s Apartments’, a suite of rooms added to the original 17th-century villa by Sir Christopher Wren for Queen Mary, who, along with her husband William, was responsible for turning the villa into a palace. In Mary’s snug, domestic rooms, you’ll see something of her elegant style, as well as learning about the tribulations of the late Stuart dynasty, and the reproductive failures of Mary and her sister Anne.

Stepping forward through time, the magnificent Georgian state apartments of the 1720s will offer visitors both a vast array of art objects and a game to play. Inspired by contemporary playing cards, you pit yourself against the pleasures and the perils of competitive court life.
The third route will mark the most dramatic change from the old Kensington Palace. You’ll ascend the staircase where Victoria first set eyes upon Albert.

Diana, Princess of Wales

Of course the history of Kensington Palace wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Diana, Princess of Wales. She and Princess Margaret were among the most glamorous residents of the Palace, impressing the world with their beauty and sense of style. A brand-new display of Diana’s dresses in a seductive, high-fashion setting, will complete the story.

In contrast to the days when Kensington Palace was an undiscovered gem, the grand new garden entrance to the palace is hard to miss, and we hope that you won’t be able to resist coming inside.

You can visit Kensington Palace for free with a National Art Pass.

Tags: What to seeMuseums and galleries