Lived-in history or Museum Living

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Over the summer whilst visiting two historic houses, of sorts, I started to think about the relationship between visitor, objects and space.

The ‘houses’ were Warwick Castle and Somerleyton House in Norfolk. Clearly the buildings themselves are objects, and often the main reason for the public to visit. As large objects the way visitors move around the buildings can be important for interpretation. It can build a relationship based on access and feelings of exploration.

But they also hold historic objects and in that sense act as museums, so where and how objects are located within them are important. As set dressing or telling a story in their own right, these objects contribute to the atmosphere of the room or house, because their location is within a house or homely setting the visitor is presented with, I think, a different set of questions, than if the objects were on display in a museum. Principally “what would it have been like to live in this space with these objects?” or “would I want or have these objects in my home?”.

In both cases the buildings themselves were magnificent and I completely recommend them as places to visit. Obviously, they were very different with very different stories but both firmly situated in the history of England and Britain as a whole. Warwick Castle dates back to the eleventh century, it was home to the Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick famous for his role in the War of the Roses, and in more recent times it was the home to Frances “Daisy” Greville, Countess of Warwick, a socialite and long term mistress of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

Somerleyton Hall

Somerleyton has 17th century origins with links to royalists who prospered after the Restoration. However, it’s current design has more to do with the 19th century and the birth of railways, as it was bought and redesigned by Samuel Morton Peto, civil engineer and railway developer. Following the bust years of the railways the house was bought by the Crossleys, manufactures of Crossleys Carpets and it remains in the hands of that family today, a symbol of the rise of some of these industrial families.

The Royal Weekend Party, Warwick Castle

A part from the historical and design differences, the principal difference between these two historic houses is that one is solely a visitor attraction, run by the company that also looks after Madam Tussaud’s, the other is still a family home. Though at Warwick there have been attempts to recreated rooms for a weekend party in 1898, hosted by Frances Countess of Warwick. Rooms are dressed, wax figures stand in place and very few areas are blocked off, giving visitors free reign to explore rooms, read text or listen to recordings. They pull you into the late Victorian scandals, and made me feel like a ghost wandering through these people’s lives. Also,this immersive technique made you feel like you could touch objects. As a curator-in-training I felt very conflicted about it, but my friends (two of whom work in the sciences and the other a professional kite-surfer – I kid you not) didn’t feel this way at all.

In contrast, at Somerleyton, you were taken round by a guide, preventing as attempts to be too nosey. There were also those tell-tale signs of a lived in house, principally the family photos (and being a stately home also portraits and buffs). Even in the dining room, with the exquisite dining set, you could imagine a family having a dinner party there. In this room one of the pieces of art had been removed to be in an exhibition in Norwich, acting as a reminder that many of these objects could be in a museum, but were, instead, used and enjoyed by a family.

Entrance Hall, Somerleyton

Nonetheless, there must be a responsibility that comes with living amongst ‘museum’ pieces, and this really hit home, so to speak, in one area in Somerleyton, the hallway at the entrance of the house. We came in from the side, so the entrance hall was the third or fourth room, this gave it a more shocking effect as it didn’t seem to fit in with the other areas that felt very lived in. Consequently, for me, it was the most powerful in giving the sense of the house in a different time and was a reminder of how tastes can change. The halfway was a hunting trophy area, with two stuffed polar bears proudly displayed alongside a hippopotamus skeleton head, skins of white tigers and a jockey weighing-in chair. I’ve seen many stuffed animals in museums but it was the home setting that I found unnerving. Yes, this was part of the family story and also part of the house’s history that men in high society at this time would go on hunts and effectively display their achievements or spoils. It’s difficult for us today, so aware of endangered animals and the devastating human impact on nature, to be confronted with this voyeuristic hobby. But it also made me ask myself would I want that in my family home? No. But it was very thought provoking inclusion, and possibly a very brave one add well. It certainly provided a greater talking point for my partner and I, compared to a sofa where the Queen apparently sat and ate lemon cake.

In contrast I didn’t find anything in the ‘home-setting’ in Warwick controversial. Though we were probably most shocked by the bedroom where noises were played from behind curtains of the four poster bed.  You really felt like you’d walked in on a rather intimate moment.

I really enjoyed both and thought the interpretation techniques used were powerful for different reasons. Warwick gave you that feeling of freedom that you were an invisible visitor walking through a family drama at the turn off the century. In Somerleyton we were welcome guests given insights into a family history amongst a family that clearly cared for their history.

They left me wondering how much of a compromise it is to live in a museum piece and how the conflicts curators have over display and interpretation could enter into your daily life. I love what I do, but I’m not sure if I’d welcome the pressure of it entering into my home. It also emphasised the importance of studies into the history of the home – it can tell us so much about how people used space and can reflect their feelings about themselves and society. Not to mention the possibilities of tackling controversial topics.

These two examples are clearly of the higher classes of society, but through a number of collaborative PhDs and work done by museums like the Geffrye Museum website, investigation continues to be done in this area.

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