Kensington Palace revamp seeks to get rid of a stuffy reputation

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Kensington Palace revamp seeks to get rid of a stuffy reputation” was written by Lizzy Davies, for The Guardian on Tuesday 20th March 2012 18.13 UTC

In the past, a visit to Kensington Palace often proved a frustrating experience. Even its curators admit that many people who visited the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, were left underwhelmed by the unassuming entrance and closed-off rooms. Some of the ground floor was used as office space. The Red Saloon, where Queen Victoria held her first privy council in 1837, suffered the indignity of serving as a ticket office.

But following a £12m renovation timed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, the palace’s public rooms will reopen on Monday with a series of improvements that curators hope will prove the continuing pulling power of the monarchy. The king and queen’s state apartments have been overhauled; a grand new entrance has been built; and the historical significance of the Red Saloon has been fully recognised as part of an exhibition devoted to Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

Joanna Marschner, senior curator for Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which looks after the building, said great effort had been made to rid Kensington of its stuffy reputation.

"There is a preconception of what a visit to a royal palace represents, and for many people that is very alienating because it is that they are quiet, serious, solemn places," she said. "But we are very concerned, very intent, to make sure that people know that these great buildings, which are so much part of our history, belong to everybody and we want everyone to feel comfortable here."

The headline element of the new-look palace is a temporary display of dresses worn by Princess Diana, including a black strapless taffeta evening gown that she wore for her first official engagement with Prince Charles in 1981, which is going on public display for the first time. It will be presented alongside a black Versace evening dress and several other frocks, including a fuchsia and purple silk chiffon sari-style robe that the princess wore on a tour of Thailand with orchids and bougainvillaea in her hair.

Princess Diana lived in apartment 8 of the palace until her death in 1997. Her son, William, and his wife Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are due to move into a different apartment in the private wing after a refurbishment due to finish next year.

Chief among the other changes at the palace is a permanent exhibition, Victoria Revealed, which traces Queen Victoria’s life from her earliest days as a baby crawling on the palace’s carpets to her decades spent in mourning. Held throughout the 10 rooms in which she was born, brought up and first saw Prince Albert, the exhibition includes her first pair of black silk booties, her wedding dress made of Spitalfields silk and Honiton lace, and poignantly, her oldest surviving mourning dress. A copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak, which was being read to Prince Albert on his death bed, is kept open at the point at which he died in 1861.

The state apartments, meanwhile, have been transformed with the help of theatre company Coney, with interactive games, multimedia installations and whispering window seats enlivening the pre-existing portraits and corridors. "[Before] it was cerebral, it was dry, it was quiet," said Marschner, who said the refurbishment had brought life to the rooms. "It’s a place that has seen so many things … that have actually changed the history of us all, wherever we come from, in one way or another, and somehow we want to make that real."

With a new orientation inside the palace and a new landscape outside – some of the fencing and tall greenery has been taken down – Marschner said the two-year revamp had greatly improved the visitor experience. Curator Deirdre Murphy agreed: "We had a very unsatisfactory linear route where [visitors] would buy their ticket in the Red Saloon, not knowing they were there; in the next room they would be given an audioguide and then they would be pushed from room to room … until eventually they were spat out the other end into the shop," she said. "That was the visitor experience. Now, the new visitor entrance … enables us to give visitors choice for the very first time."

• This article was amended on 21 March 2012. The final quote was originally incorrectly attributed to Joanna Marschner. That has now been corrected. In addition, the original referred to Queen Victoria’s wedding dress as made of Spitalfields silk and Homerton lace. This has also been corrected.

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