Leicester’s King Richard III Visitor Centre: (much) more than meets the eye

In a previous blog post I had a few thoughts about the sort of legacy and memory of a historic persona that is created in the new King Richard III (KRIII) Visitor Centre at Leicester. The Centre first opened its doors at the end of July 2014, and is only in its fourth month of operations, yet has already succeeded in collecting an impressive array of awards. First up, an award recognising the architectural concepts from the East Midlands fbe (Forum for the Built Environment), but most recently, the rather prestigious  Annual British Guild of Travel Writers’ Award. These well-deserved accolades underline the impact the Centre has  had in the first few months of its opening, and certainly also indicates the potential for this attraction to become a major player in attracting visitors to Leicester. Arguably, part of this appeal lies in the Centre’s ambition of offering something new, something different, something that sets it apart from other cultural heritage centres dedicated to a person or a theme, and this different vision is apparent even on the most cursory of  visits. Given all these factors, it seemed well worth returning to the Centre with my professional art historical hat on, so to speak, as part of a cross- subject Masters module I am currently running on challenges and opportunities that face cultural heritage institutions today. The KRIII Visitor Centre is one of the case studies we have looked at in class, partly as a result of its rather unusual set up and premise. The Centre, maybe uniquely, has no original artefacts relating to King Richard III with the exception of a single ring found near the Bosworth Battlefield- and yet, it recommends that visitors take at least 90 minutes to walk around their series of galleries. And judging by my own experience, 90 minutes may be rushing it. So how can a cultural institution curate a visitor experience that takes care and time and attention to engage with when ostensibly there isn’t anything to see?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis all depends of course on what it is you ‘see’. No, there are no images, paintings, manuscripts, costumes or any of the paraphernalia associated with the material culture of a fifteenth-century King, but what the KRIII Centre have succeeded in doing is to, arguably, create a different and possibly more immersive experience for the visitor. With no original artefacts to take care of, the Centre is free of all the constraints of conservation and preservation that necessarily affect decisions made by other institutions. This absence of constraints provides opportunities for a more creative approach to display, and the great strength of the Centre is that these opportunities have been grasped with both hands. There are some constraints on the Centre; for example, it occupies very interesting premises, utilising both the former Alderman Newton School and some purpose-built extensions, so the spaces it has at its disposal vary, and create a quite logical rhtym to the viewing experience. There are several galleries spread over two floors, so the very site of the Centre offers the opportunity for pacing the visitor’s experience and to make use of the upstairs and downstairs spaces in very different and distinctive ways.

The galleries downstairs are essentially concerned with telling a very basic history of how OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARichard III ended up dead on the Battlefield at Bosworth. The story in all its simplicity  is told beautifully, imaginatively and creatively, with dates and events stripped down to the bare bones of this complex story, offering both enough information to get the outline of events yet without overwhelming the listener/viewer. The austere simplicity of this narrative is paced through the differing spaces and displays. So, for example, on entering the galleries, the visitor enters an essentially empty space save for a beautifully carved throne, empty but for two carved roses, and this strikingly empty throne becomes the focus for two digital displays. One, situated  behind the throne and occupying the entire backwall of the gallery, uses a short film clip to set the scene, telling the story of Richard’s rise from right-hand man to his brother Edward IV to assuming power himself. Running in parallel to this film is a second scrolling display, this one silent, and projected onto a slab resembling a grave marker and positioned at the front of the throne. The scrolling display offers a chronology of the War of the Roses, told through listing key battles; it certainly emphasises just how the number of casualties in this most destructive of Civil Wars mounted to intolerable and unsustainable levels. So, this first room juxtaposes two interwoven narratives, one of the power struggles at court, with the resulting casulaties of civil war.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The point about decisions at court impacting on everybody else is nicely made and becomes even more poignant when the viewer turns right and walks under a heavy black gate, and into a black corridor. Crossing this threshold means entering into the short period of Richard’s reign, with all its triumphs (Richard was an experienced leader and gifted administrator and his legal reforms stood up exceptionally well) and tragedies. On a personal level, Richard III lost both his wife and 10-year old son to illness in 1485, there was the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, and of course, the challenge mounted against Richard’s legitimacy as King. The darkness of the threshold gallery also, arguably, invites the viewer to pause and think about the legitimacy of this step taken by Richard; the black corridor opens into a wide, open gallery with a predominantly red colour scheme-the blood red of the gallery clearly looking ahead to Richard’s demise on the battle field. Light can be captured reasonably well through a photo; sound can’t, so its important to add that the KRIII’s downstairs galleries don’t just create a narrative spaced by visual displays, but also complemented by a change in the soundscape. There are voices, there are monks chanting, there is the sound of horses charging and weapons clashing, there are stories being told- sound and sight creating an immersive environment which arguably makes the inclusions of artefacts unnecessary.

While History is a lead theme downstairs, the upstairs galleries are about Richard III and his literary afterlife, and then a series of galleries that speak about the science of the dig and the discovery of the body in his hastily dug grave in Leicester’s Greyfriars. Where downstairs is carefully lit, carefully curated and generally lit by low light to let the digital displays stand out, the aesthetic upstairs is bright, white and flooded with light in a gallery that evokes more than anything else a scientific laboratory space. Upstairs is about objective fact. There is much more sign posting, much more text on labels and wall displays, and even the font of the text has changed from a spidery Gothic to a properly modern font.

site of Richard III's grave with a light projection outlining the position of the body as found

site of Richard III’s grave with a light projection outlining the position of the body as found

The stark contrast between the upstairs and downstairs section could have been mishandled- in fact, it works beautifully, and its the upstairs galleries that then really set the scene for the final part of the visitor’s experience, which is a return downstairs and to the actual site of the discovery of Richard’s grave. The KRIII Centre have built a beautiful extension into the very car park on top of the Old Greyfriars, which facilitates a visit to the actual site of the excavation. Now this space is fascinating as again, there is nothing there (the body was excavated and awaits reburial in Leicester Cathedral) but the excavation site is a real focal point for the display. Over the site now stands a really rather beautiful glass structure, with beautiful metal details, and even the most exquisitely crafted bare copper roses on the roof.

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The space is plain, only evoking a burial chapel, but strongly suggesting a space that is significant and peaceful.

It’s certainly a poignant way to end the visit to the Centre, and once out the doors, well, the options to delve a bit further and maybe walk across the square to the Cathedral where Richard’s body will be reburied at Easter 2015, or to walk Leicester, or even travel on to Bosworth, are open. The story of the body ends with its discovery- the visitor’s ability to engage with that history only begins, so again, there is a suggestion of thresholds and choices, a theme that is very much recurrent throughout the Centre’s displays and artistic curation. For me, a second visit to the Centre made me see so much more than I had noticed the first time round, but have a look for yourself. There really is much more to this than initially meets the eye…..

 

 

 

 

 

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