The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

RIII (Richard III) – Dynasty, Death and Discovery

It’s the opening weekend of Leicester’s brand spanking new Richard III Visitor Centre (KRIII), right across from the Cathedral’s brand spanking new gardens, in the heart of Leicester’s oldest quarter. The sun is shining, the weather has been too hot for more than a week, and a gardener is out, madly trying to water all the new plants before they die.

St Martins is a short laneway leading to Peacock Lane, and is still partly under construction due to the new gardens in front of the Cathedral that now create a pedestrianized walking area between the Church and the Centre. It’s away from the hustle and bustle of the main city centre, and with Castle Garden’s Richard III statue now pointing the way from the Cathedral (Richard’s final resting place next year) and the Centre, there is a peaceful contemplation to the area that has never previously been there.

The Centre itself is an old school, now converted following £4 million pounds of funding into a Visitor Centre. Or maybe a visitor attraction is closer to the mark, like Bosworth Battlefield on the outskirts of Leicester. There is a certain symmetry now, between the two. The city got lucky with the old school, conveniently located next door to the 2012 dig site and with an extension towards the west, the Centre now encompasses the ruins of Grey Friar’s Church and a 500 year old grave, now empty.

I will start with the positives, because I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t support this new Leicester initiative. I do. I wholeheartedly do. I hope it’s popular and interesting, and that visitors flock to the place for many years to come. Leicester deserves to be known by non-residents, as it boasts a wonderful cultural amalgamation and a great yearly calendar of events.

The architectural additions to the old school are quite well done, preserving the original (glorious) architecture, but still creating a space that can house a modern exhibition. The décor in the lobby and café is tasteful. Care has clearly been taken to use some nicer-than-average building materials in the glass entryway leading to the ‘tomb’. The exhibition styles on the ground floor and the first floor are as different as night and day, but they work with the themes presented and there’s a good deal of space devoted to exhibition. I appreciated the wood that has been added in many places and the continuing theme of the RIII Centre’s logo, with the crown and fleur-de-lis. On the ground floor, just by the café and before the trip upstairs to the second half of the exhibition, there is a text panel telling visitors about the history of the building. It’s well placed, on the way to the washrooms and in obvious view of the (too industrial looking, I think) staircase.

The Centre has undertaken timed entry, which will no doubt be useful when the place becomes very busy, but on opening day there wasn’t a huge number of visitors (at least when we were there at 11am). This will, hopefully, change when word gets around that the Centre is open, as the visitor target for the first year is 100,000. A long ramp leads from the (woefully inadequate) gift shop up to the first room. It’s there to set the mood, to take the visitor away from the outside world and get them to understand that they are walking into history, to a place where they will learn about death and betrayal and all the other wonderful aspects of fifteenth century England. However, it somewhat fails in this scene-setting by the fact that the huge entrance door is so big that all the sound from the lobby just echoes through the space and makes getting into the mood a bit difficult. A smaller doorway might have solved this problem, or an offset one that might have blocked the sound. The first room is all digital, with projections on the floor and far wall. While this is a nice touch, I worry about what happens on the day that the first projector bulb goes. One assumes they’ve taken this into account, but my own thesis research (dealing with exactly this topic) suggests that heritage centres rarely consider breakage after the fact, or the skyrocketing costs that come with fixing broken technology. I appreciate the need for a ‘wow’ factor to give visitors their money’s worth, but this may backfire at a later stage (inevitably it will one day, tech doesn’t last forever).

From this entrance room there is a room to the left that is bright and cheerful and appears to be temporary exhibition space. I appreciate this addition to the Centre, though the current exhibition of paintings – appropriately-themed works by a local painter - didn’t grab my interest at all. It could be a useful space later, and would certainly work as commercial space for events and parties (which is perhaps the true purpose, I didn’t think to ask the staff this).

On the right, a claustrophobic and dark corridor leads into the main exhibit. I’d be fine with this, normally, except it’s going to be a constant bottleneck space with even half the normal visitor numbers and those always bug me. They had limited space in the old school to create the exhibits, but there are ways around tight spaces. The few text panels in this corridor space are set remarkably high (I’m average height for a woman) and with the press of bodies, visitors stopping to read them isn’t likely anyways.

The main downstairs exhibition is, at first glance, pretty, though horribly dark. The mood lighting is obvious, but without artefacts to take care of, the darkness is sometimes annoying and at other times plain frustrating, particularly towards the back of the room. Even a short line of people is going to hold the whole place up, as people stop to read the text (and it’s ALL text in here). The ground floor exhibit details the history of the late fifteenth century in England, explaining King Edward and the War of the Roses, though in a way that suggests the intended audience will have no prior knowledge of either (good assumptions for foreign visitors, less good for locals – there’s been enough documentaries on BBC in the last two years). I admit to having lost interest in the text panels quite quickly (I’m more a history buff than most) and also getting tired of waiting for people to move on. A solitary interactive tucked into a corner at the back of the first section of the gallery seems more geared at children, but with the overwhelming amount of text, the dark lighting and a lack of interactivity, this place is not made for children.

Following the path around (there’s only one route in here, like it or leave), there is the barest glimpse of an artifact (a ring donated by the Leicester Museums) and a few reproductions that (in one case fail to state it’s a reproduction) hardly stand in for actual objects, more of which could be seen in the tiny Guildhall exhibit that’s been on the last year. Shame that, as even a floor tile or two would have been more interesting to look at. The few resin objects, for example, could easily be replaced by ‘real’ examples from the Leicester Arts and Museum Service collection.

More projection screens tell the story of Richard’s reign and fall, with more text to read in darkened spaces. An ‘interactive’ which lets visitors open doors to look at figures and read the accompanying text could have been great fun…except for the lack of light in which to see it. It could easily be missed by visitors not paying attention.

A back corner of the gallery offers a few nice quotes about Richard throughout history, though an extra text panel has obviously been added this week, listing the original contributors of the quotes, a slight miss. However, the most worrying aspect of the gallery is the ‘display’ of halberds (by which I mean a recreations, arranged to stick out from the wall at various angles) is fine, though presents an awful lot of sharp points at child level.

An issue that is clear from the start is that there is already subtle damage to the text panels and displays, even within the first couple of hours of opening day. Things will wear quite quickly from visitor touching and children will touch, peel and destroy everything they can. To have not taken this into account shows a severe lack of foresight in the design. There are already fingerprints on everything, and a final clean was clearly missed before the Centre opened, particularly in the grave room.

A minor issue is the font used for the headings in the lower gallery, a gothic type script set well above eye-level in most cases and, in the dark, takes a bit of concentration to read. It fits the mood, but will be a challenge for some visitors. The main text, at least, is clear and easy to read, though sometimes more difficult in lower light.

A regular door leads out to the café area from the dark gallery and here we encounter perhaps the greatest problem of all with the Centre: the café is only accessible to paying visitors. There is no other way to get to it except to pass the ticketing desk. A staff member said that gift aid (yet to be set up) will allow a year’s access to the café, but as not everyone will/can ‘gift aid’ this seems a big miss. I have wracked my brains all day but have failed to come up with another visitor centre or museum in Britain where the café is not publically accessible. As it is a nice café with a good and affordable menu, they have missed the boat, particularly with a good sized courtyard for the summer months (though with insufficient tables and chairs outside on opening day) and a nice fresh menu with plenty of options for adults and kids.

The entrance outside the café then leads by stair or lift to the first floor, a bright (almost shockingly so after the lower gallery) space that explores the archaeological and scientific processes of the ‘discovery’ of Richard III. It’s well done and the information is well presented (although eagle eyes might spot a few typos in the interpretive text!). A few interactives help visitors explore in more depth and a great 3D digital rendering of Leicester then and now is a wonderful addition. Several problems with the space, however, include the fact that the audio for the interactives is much too low to be heard in anything other than a completely silent gallery and the speakers are aimed in the wrong directions. Also, the inclusion of ‘artefacts’ from the dig are, well, a bit of a joke, really. Again, several things from the Guildhall exhibit could have been placed here, but instead hi-vis jackets and Phillipa Langley’s wellies take pride of place. A mistake, I feel.

The first section of the gallery nicely features information about portrayals of Richard III over the years, from Shakespeare to 2014’s ‘The White Queen’ mini-series (it’s already out of date – no Martin Freeman in 2014's summer production of Richard III in London) and includes a reproduction (why not the original?) of Ian McKellan’s Richard III costume. This leads into an overview of the dig itself, ending in a section featuring small photos of the skeleton in situ, in its grave. No doubt an effort to treat the body of a king with dignity, but having seen the bones in multiple photos over the last two years, this ‘dignity’ seems highly unnecessary.

The final space is about what has happened since the dig, from DNA sequencing through scientific evaluation and the identification of the bones as being those of Richard III. This last section, I feel, is where the Centre really comes into its own, as it’s interesting and informative, well designed and features displays about each aspect of the process, and has a lovely central interactive based around an MRI machine with a recreated skeleton that uses HUD technology to show different parts of the skeleton.

The famous portrait and the reconstructed head that was based on the skull are also on display, before the stairs that lead you back down (a lovely wooden staircase) to the central glazed promenade between the lobby and the café. Here is a space that should be quiet, though with sound from the café and the lobby it’s less so. It leads to a ‘gold’ sliding door and into an area that feels remarkably tomb-like. Here is the ultimate ‘wow’, a glass floor over the gravesite, exactly as it looked two years ago when I last saw it, standing at the edge of the archaeological dig. It’s a lovely space (though the seats and quote on the wall emphasis ‘tomb’ and almost go too far towards a meditative space which will be available in the Cathedral this time next year). Still, it’s the most architecturally stunning part of the whole Centre and might be worth the admission price alone, if you’ve did not have the chance to see the site on dig open days. A projection that comes and goes shows you how the skeleton lay in the shallow cramped space for 500 years. The space is only truly let down by the dirty finger smudges all over the ‘gold’ door and up to the ceiling. Someone find a cleaner STAT!

In all, the entry price is reasonable, in comparison with other places around Britain, and the Centre should attract tourists from far and wide. It has enough of a wow factor and information to appeal to the general public (though not, you may have noticed, a museum professional!). The staff seem enthusiastic (for now) and there are certainly enough of them around, almost too many staff, but this may change after opening weekend.

There need to be more activities for the kids, however, to make it worth the price of their admission. The kids that were there were running about ignoring everything, so clearly they were already bored before they had got half way. A shame, really, as the history and science lend themselves to much more interactivity; the only true interactive being a ‘dig’ station upstairs that does not work as well as the designer intended it too. A station more akin to what Jewry Wall put in for the Millennium addition would have been much more hands on.

Lastly, comment cards are readily available, with a chance to win a Richard III goody bag (whatever that is), however there is no box to leave them in and, therefore, they must be handed to staff, which requires a certain amount of trust, not least in respect of the personal details, required to enter the draw.

In all, however, visitors will likely enjoy the trip (though only once – I wonder whether the Centre will get repeat visitors?) and hopefully it will gain Leicester that much coveted reputation as a tourist destination. Time will tell.



*All views presented in this article are those of MuseumWriter, and are not the views of The Attic or the School of Museum Studies at Leicester.