Dressed to kill
Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces have put Henry VIII back at centre stage with the Dressed to Kill exhibition at the Tower of London. The Leisure Review went behind the scenes to learn about the demands of exhibition planning, the intricacies of curatorial care and how it compares with working in theatres.
Karen Whitting with a Yeoman colleague
Five centuries after he came to the throne Henry VIII is still the man of the moment. This most recognisable of all British monarchs became king in 1509 and the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of his accession has offered opportunities and challenges for many of the venues and organisations most associated with royalty in the UK.
Hampton Court Palace is the building perhaps most readily associated with Henry’s reign but downstream the Tower of London, the building that has served as a symbol of English monarchy for the best part of a millennium, has been marking the occasion with the Dressed to Kill exhibition. Three floors of the White Tower have been transformed by the Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces to offer a new understanding of Henry as sporting hero, warrior king and icon.
As head of creative programmes for the Royal Armouries in Leeds and project manager for the exhibition, Karen Whitting has been immersed in Henry and the Dressed to Kill project since its inception. With the doors finally open, she is able to gauge the reactions of the thousands of visitors that will come through the exhibition galleries each day.
Karen explained that the Royal Armouries first began planning to do something to mark the five hundredth anniversary of Henry’s accession about ten years ago. “We do that for all anniversaries,” she said. “We ask, is there something that we can do with our arms and armour to illustrate those stories for people, to bring the objects alive and encourage people to come for days out.”
Planning began in earnest about twelve months ago, beginning with a budget, the search for a suitable venue and a draft of a list of objects that the exhibition’s curators would like to include in the display.
“Everything we do focuses on our collection. Although we’re focusing on stories, because that’s the way to bring it alive, I would say the interesting thing about this exhibition is the personality of Henry VIII. The way to show that and to illustrate it is to display the arms and armour in an innovative way, possibly using new technology, which is what we’ve done in this exhibition.
“We came up with some themes that we wanted to explore, which are Henry the sportsman, Henry as a warrior and Henry as an icon, looking at why people are still interested in Henry five hundred years on. We started then filling in the story with the objects and where they would sit. We were lucky enough to be already based here at the Tower of London and Historic Royal Palaces asked if we would do the exhibition in partnership with them.”
While the exhibition’s curators considered how to bring the best selection of objects together to illustrate Henry’s fascination with armour, firearms and inventions, the creative team, which included Karen as project manager, the designers and installers, began to consider how to put the objects into a coherent context that visitors would enjoy. The exhibition’s title came relatively early in this process, a welcome development that shaped the concept and design of the displays.
“The designers were able to work with that title rather than finding a title to match the design, which happens so often,” Karen said. “They said, ‘Right, it’s a catwalk and that’s what we’re going to use to display the armours. We’ll use lighting as if it were a catwalk show.’ All the photography has been done like an art shoot for a fashion magazine and the publications have got that feel as well. All of it came out of a bit of inspiration but it is all about Henry. He was ‘dressed to kill’ and everything feeds back to the armour. Everything comes out of the objects and without the objects there is no exhibition.”
Two and half floors of exhibition space had to be cleared for the new display. In January two thousand objects were taken out, some of which were kept to hand to supplement the three van-loads of objects that arrived from Leeds. Other objects came from loans from across the UK, together with loans from Paris, Vienna and New York, to create and complete the Dressed to Kill exhibition. Getting everything to London safely and placed into the display cases without damage is a process that required great skill and attention to detail.
“Let’s just say that it’s quite a challenge,” Karen said with a rueful smile. “Certain organisations have rules about locking down cases. This means that they could insist that once you’ve locked a case you don’t go back in unless they come back on site. As a result you sometimes have to have two or three couriers with you if there are several objects going into a case and then lock it while they are all watching.”
Organisations loaning their objects want to ensure that their valuable pieces are handled properly. Scratches, even for armour, are to be strictly avoided.
“Original scratches are fine but even handling objects with the wrong kind of gloves can damage them so we have to be so careful. The team for the exhibition has been display technicians, actually making the mounts and putting the armour on the mounts; conservators, to make sure everything is in the best possible condition; and also registrars, who look after the security of everything to make sure that it’s moved from this building to this building with tick sheets and the correct paperwork.
“With every piece that goes in there’s a ‘heart in the mouth’ moment and when every case is locked down it’s an achievement. Because we knew in advance that there would be this lock-down rule, we had to make sure that the graphics were in place beforehand, perhaps a backdrop for the case, the lighting or labelling; all that had to be prepared so that when the object goes in everybody’s happy with it and it gets locked.”
With the final piece in position only a few days before the first visitors arrive, Karen was delighted to have arrived at opening without having to reopen any of the cases and still on schedule. The next stage in the process of bringing the exhibition to the public is opening the doors and Dressed to Kill begins with a ‘soft opening’ where visitors are allowed in a couple of days ahead of the officially advertised date. This allows Karen and the team to see if their assumptions about how people will flow around the exhibition and whether all aspects of the interpretation are working.
“I like to have layers of interpretation,” Karen said. “If you just read the entrance banner, which is about seven lines, you would understand what we’re trying to do with the exhibition and then you could look at objects and enjoy it. You could read the banners on the side of the rooms, which give you about another hundred words. You can watch the AVs [audio-visuals]. You can read the quotations from Henry’s reign on the cases; and you can read the labels and the publications. So you can engage with it at different levels. It will be interesting to see how it works.”
Other aspects of the project will also contribute to the assessment of the extent to which the exhibition can be judged a success. Karen explained: “The Tower has something like 65% foreign-language visitors and we have to bear that in mind. We did a very close PRINCE2 assessment of what would be needed from the exhibition when we were briefing the design and build teams. It has to withstand about two million visitors a year, plus we want to build on that by putting the exhibition on. We hope this year we’ll drive more visitors and that will be another measure of our success. We want to make it work for our partners, for Historic Royal Palaces and we want people to know about the Royal Armouries, that we’re based here and have a collection here.”
Once the opening is behind her Karen will visit every month to see how the exhibition is holding up and talk to the warding staff to see what is working and what could be improved. All these lessons feed into the development of future exhibitions.
“When we come to take it out in January next year and do the redisplay we will have learned from this and get it better next time,” she said. “Lessons are learned at every exhibition we do, whether in Leeds, Portsmouth or here. That’s what we’re looking to do on every occasion. It may not be possible to completely strip out a case or redo it but we know that if something did work really well we can take that on into the next exhibition. It’s quite exciting having lots of sites because it means you can swap ideas around.”
Karen moved full-time down to London from Leeds two months before the exhibition opened and worked every day of every week in that time. There will be a couple of days off at Easter but then it will be straight into planning a summer exhibition for Leeds on the theme of ‘the Tower and the Traitors’ and some further installations for the top floor of the Dressed to Kill exhibition, including the possibility of some holographic interpretation of Henry’s armour. A new visitor centre at Fort Nelson is also on the schedule and there will be a redisplay of the galleries at the Royal Armouries’ site in Louisville, Kentucky. And of course there is the redisplay of the White Tower galleries when the Dressed to Kill exhibition comes out.
Karen agreed that it is hard work but stressed that we should not interpret this as any form of complaint. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said with a laugh. “My background is in theatre – I was a stage manager and a company manager before I moved on to exhibitions – and this is actually easy compared to that!”
Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill is at the Tower of London until January 2010.
The Leisure Review, May 2009
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A treasury of warfare: part of the Maximilian armour
Dressed to Kill and on display at the Tower of London
Henry VIII still drawing a crowd five hundred years on