I am in Kensington Palace, down on my knees in front of a piece of museum interpretation, ostensibly because I am photographing it but also, quite probably, because I am full of admiration for whoever thought up the beguiling gestures that make up this exhibition.
Because the designers (or maybe it was the curators?) had the clever idea of ‘going small’ in telling Queen Victoria’s childhood, a story which now unfolds through the same rooms where the action took place two hundred years ago. The story concerns the young Victoria, her dominating mother and her mother’s favourite adviser Sir John Conway. The story unfolds by means of small Victorian figures, that emerge, shawled and top-hatted, from the thick foliage of flower pots. Other figures dance along the mantelpiece; and one small figure in a white dress (this must be Victoria?) sits on the edge of a book, staring intently at an opera which is unfolding in a toy theatre. (Victoria loved the stage.)
Does that make it sound twee? It isn’t. In the last room, placed upon a central table, is a model of a meeting that took place in this room in June 1838, the day that Victoria was crowned queen, when 97 Privy Councillors, all men, crowded into this room to meet her. It takes only the smallest imaginative jump in my mind to go from the model to life size. Nothing conveys her situation so vividly – a young, single woman and 97 men trying to control her – as the sight of this model.
Queen Victoria’s childhood was immensely privileged. But for a poor childhood, also beautifully – though very differently – told, try the Tenement House in Henrietta Street in Dublin. This huge, once elegant 18th century mansion fell upon hard times and was gradually carved up into dozens of apartments, so that by the twentieth century it had become the home for some of Dublin’s poorest families. The house is unrestored and almost entirely unfurnished (except for the last rooms) but, despite being so minimal, the experience is richly atmospheric. A guide takes you round and you quickly realise that the Tenement House is his and his family’s story. Listen to his voice, wrapping up the different rooms into one experience, and you realise that this is what they teach you in creative writing classes, that the power of the story depends on the voice of the storyteller – strong, consistent and utterly individual.
Fifteen years ago interpretation in historic houses was a poor man’s version of museum interpretation – all labels and stiff mannequins. But historic houses are like theatre stages just waiting for a story to unfold across them. Lately storytelling in historic houses has become some of the best there is around.
And if you’re interested in how to imbue storytelling with a fantastical feeling, and also in the power of miniature, try the following articles –PREVIOUS STORY