Line of Kings: Sad, scary or thrilling – the removal of an exhibition

Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes, tells us about riding a wave of emotions as the removal of the old exhibition gets underway.

As we moved into the physical phases of the Line of Kings’ project over the last month, new partners have joined us. The cultural and heritage fit out company, the hub, are providing build and installation expertise and Equinox are working magic as they art-work the graphic images and label texts.

While offsite technical drawings are prepared, signed off and fabricated and text is set and approved in a state of relative calm and detachment, on-site there is a hive of activity which has become very personal.

Exhibitions installed in the late 1990s and as recently as 2009/10 are leaving the White Tower as little more than scrap metal and splintered wood. All the collection objects were removed, packed and safely stored and any items for re-use were stripped out. What was left is now being broken up and leaving site in skips and vans for re-cycling and disposal.

Skips and vans remove the old exhibitions at the White Tower, Tower of London

Skips and vans remove the old exhibitions at the White Tower, Tower of London

But how does that make us feel? Sad, certainly, as exhibitions that staff had invested in academically, physically and emotionally are removed. Scary, partly because you never quite know what might happen during a time of such rapid changes, and thrilling, because the stripping out of these modern interventions is revealing more and more of the historic fabric of the iconic White Tower interior and setting the scene for the installation of our new exhibition.

The idea that we are following in a centuries-long tradition of re-display at the Tower of London is enough to send shivers down our spines. Every step we take on this extraordinary journey to opening day has been taken before, right here at the Tower. This really is history where it happened.

From 10 July, visitors to the 21st century Line of Kings’ exhibition will be following in the footsteps of their predecessors, viewing artefacts that were on display as far back as 1652.

Looking ahead, perhaps their reactions will survive to inform the exhibition teams of the future.

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes

Line of Kings: The Haunting of Richard III

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, delves deeper into the reasons why Richard III was not part of the Line of Kings.

The recent discovery of King Richard III’s remains in a Leicestershire car park, a project which involved our very own Bob Woosnam-Savage (read Bob’s blog), triggered a realisation for me. As the press coverage has shown, this particular King has been a dominant figure in English history, so for modern observers it could be surprising that Richard III was not represented in the historic displays of the Line of Kings at the Tower of London.

Over the centuries, a display representing Kings of England, and other curiosities, has been present within the Tower of London for visitors to enjoy, and this summer we will be opening a new exhibition exploring these displays through history. As part of our work to prepare for the new exhibition, I have recently been looking at how specific kings were represented.

Richard III’s brother, Edward IV as represented in the Line of Kings in the Penny Magazine, c.1840. © Royal Armouries

Richard III’s brother, Edward IV as represented in the Line of Kings in the Penny Magazine, c.1840. © Royal Armouries

After the discovery of Richard III in February 2013, I felt the absence of this infamous King was emphasised and began to wonder why. The representation of Richard III within cultural memory has changed over time. The last of the Plantagenet kings is no longer the despised villain of Tudor legend – today he is far more acceptable, the victim of Tudor propaganda and friendly monarch buried in the local car park. So when the line was constructed, as far back as the 1660s, it would not have been appropriate to portray or possibly celebrate his reign. However, he was always present through association.

The crowned monarchs either side of Richard III were displayed – his brother Edward IV, and Richard’s vanquisher at Bosworth, Henry VII. Though, arguably one of the most emotive and powerful displays in the Line of Kings is that of Edward V, Richard III’s nephew and one of the ‘Lost Princes’.

In my next blog I’ll discuss the depiction of the two princes in displays at the Tower of London in more detail, but in the meantime to find out more about the new Line of Kings exhibition see the previous blogs in the series.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Line of Kings: Back to Front

Ellie Rowley-Conwy, the project conservator for the Line of Kings tells us about her part in building a wall of armour.

Line of Kings, Project Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy  © Royal Armouries Museum

Line of Kings, Project Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy
© Royal Armouries Museum

To some, it might seem that cleaning 113 pieces of seemingly identical plate armour would be repetitive or even, dare I say it, boring.

Perhaps this makes me sound odd but nothing could be further from the truth. Although superficially similar, each artefact offers its own challenges, details and insights.

Indeed, it is only by working with so many pieces that the unique nature of each piece stands out. Many of the objects are inscribed with the word ‘Toiras’ across the front, referring to the Marquis de Toiras who famously withstood the three-month siege of La Rochelle in 1627, which is the provenence of all the breastplates and backplates.

© Royal Armouries Museum

© Royal Armouries Museum

Subtle differences can include the manufacturer marks that are often found on the inside; the size of the pieces giving information about the soldiers involved in the conflict; and the dents and damage present on the pieces which tells us about the objects’ working life.

Often the breastplates and backplates have been coated in a lacquer to protect them from handling and the environment. This can work well for a few years but, if left on for too long, it will yellow and become increasingly difficult to remove.

The first stage in the conservation process is to clean this off, using cotton swabs and an appropriate solvent that will remove the lacquer without damaging the underlying metal. Under the lacquer layer there can be remnants of thick wax, which was used in the past to help protect metal. This also has to be removed using a further solvent.

Any corrosion present on the object is cleaned off using, a specific abrasive material with an appropriate lubricant to prevent any scratching of the metal. The object is then coated with a protective conservation grade wax.

The result of all this hard work will be a very striking, full wall of breastplates and backplates, forming the backdrop for the Line of Kings exhibition, which will open at the Tower of London on July 10.

Blogger: Ellie Rowley-Conwy, Project Conservator, Line of Kings

Line of Kings: For the 21st Century

Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes, takes us through the process of design for the Line of Kings.

With the first phase of research complete, last Spring saw Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces form a core project team who would work together with external experts to develop firstly concept and then detailed designs.

The A.O.C Team

The A.O.C Team

With so many display options available, we commissioned some early stage concept development from a diverse range of companies – from architects to audio visual specialists. These designs were analysed and one, in particular, drove forward our thinking so were able to prepare a formal design tender.

By early summer A.O.C. had been selected to join the internal team.

A series of workshops running from last Autumn to just two weeks ago, shaped and honed our design and narrative vision for the project – giving us a new incarnation of the Line of Kings.

We have now consulted specialists in exhibition lighting, graphics and structural engineering and also sought English Heritage’s advice and expertise to ensure that we both do no harm to the exhibition venue – the historic White Tower – but also that we enhance the visitor experience of that amazing environment.

Each expert has worked to complement and support our ambition to re-present over 350 objects, each selected by our curators as being part of the historic Horse Armoury and its central feature, the Line of Kings.

(For more information about this selection, the objects and their history in the Horse Armoury and Line of Kings please see web pages going live for July 2013).

The resulting detailed plans will now lead us into the next stage of our journey as we take a huge stride forwards from design to delivery.

Content for web pages, graphic panels and labels will be prepared and edited by our in-house team. Meanwhile, we will select more expert assistance, this time for exhibition construction, art-working, graphic production and installation – companies that will allow us to lift the lines from the page and create tangible structures which will bring this extraordinary story to life.

Line of Kings: Return of the Prince

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, welcomes back, a true treasure, the armour of Henry Frederick Stuart, which will be displayed within the Line of Kings this Summer.

After forming part of the very successful Lost Prince exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, we are delighted to welcome back the armour of Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, to the Tower of London.

Henry was the eldest son of James I and was heir to the throne until his untimely death in 1612, aged just 18. This beautiful armour was made by Dutch armourers and was presented to Henry, the Prince of Wales, by Sir Francis Vere, a former soldier, under Elizabeth I, in 1607.

Henry was about 13 years old when he received this armour. Though only just a teenager, he was being prepared for a future role as king. He showed promise as a swordsman and jouster, was a keen huntsman and a patron of the arts, as well as a strong advocate for Protestantism.

Click to view image full screen.

The armour of Henry Stuart in pieces

The armour consists of 15 parts and is extremely delicate. It is transported in pieces, which are carefully unpacked before being reassembled in the gallery. Closer inspection of the armour reveals its true beauty, with wonderful gilt bands of decoration showing scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, including elephants. Therein lies a problem.  The decoration continues along the lames and, where these rub over each other, any movement erodes the surface. Older cleaning methods, using brick dust and oil, while keeping the bright sections glowing, have also left their mark.  However in spite of the passage of time, and elbow grease, this armour remains one of our treasures. With such delicate and beautiful armour, it is always a relief to see it finally reassembled and back on display.

Click to view image full screen.

Henry Stuart back on display

Henry Stuart’s armour will form part of our exciting new exhibition Line of Kings, opening in the Summer, so be sure to come and see it, in all its splendour, then.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Line of Kings: Voices from the past

Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes, tells us about delving into the past of the Line of Kings.

Our research included compiling all the images of the ‘Line of Kings’ in the Royal Armouries’ collection and beyond that we could trace, from early sketches to later photographs.

Click to view image full screen.

Visitors to the Line of Kings in 1800

Alongside this, other team members were burrowing into the Royal Armouries’ archives and those held by organisations such as The National Archives at Kew to discover and record as much information as possible about the display’s origins and subsequent development.

Please look out for new web pages in 2013 in the build-up to the new exhibition’s opening, which will include areas looking at this research in detail.

One of the most fascinating studies traced visitors’ voices from the past – an area which really started as a sideline to the main research but has now developed into our strongest exhibition storyline…

Alex Gaffikin, Interpretation Manager from Historic Royal Palaces takes up the story:

We’ve been reading old guidebooks, postcards, journals and letters to hear what visitors have thought of the exhibition through the ages.

Visitors to the ‘Line of Kings’ included Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach who in 1710 describes a curious ceremony with the lining of part of the armour of Henry VIII, ‘For a jest countless pins have been stuck into this velvet, and any young persons, especially females, who come here, are presented with one, because they are supposed to be a charm against impotency and barrenness.’

My favourite recollection is from a letter by César de Saussure from around 1725 who writes that Henry VIII, ‘is said to be a good likeness of this celebrated king. If you press a spot on the floor with your feet you will see something surprising with regard to this figure; but I will not say more and leave you to guess what it is.’ The mind boggles.

Click to view image full screen.

Visitors to the Line of Kings in 1845

Can you help? We are on the look-out for any old postcards, diary entries or recollections from visitors in times gone by that we can use either in the exhibition itself or on the web pages being developed to support it … if you have anything along these lines please do get in touch by emailing karen.whitting@armouries.org.uk

Line of Kings: Time to Think…

We continue on our journey from the past to modern concept, to physical reality, as Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes takes us through the process of a ‘Thinking day’.

Our Ambition: To re-display an area of the entrance floor of the White Tower entitled the ‘Line of Kings’, which was developed most recently in 1996 – and installed at that time with a clear intention to re-visit the exhibition as soon as further resources became available. Unfortunately, this was put on hold as other plans came into play – until now.

Our Collection: The objects currently on display include a wide range of material from 12 carved wooden horses to rows of pikemen’s armours. Our challenge was to develop a brief, which would inspire a new exhibition showcasing these objects and revealing their stories.

A composite image of the current ‘Line of Kings’ display in the Entrance floor of the White Tower
© Royal Armouries Museum

Thinking Day: In June 2011, interested parties from both Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces stepped away from their day-to-day working and into a ‘thinking day’ on the ‘Line of Kings’. Thinking days offer a fantastic opportunity to focus on specific subjects, really drilling down into detail without distraction. I think they work most effectively when they take the format similar to that of the ‘Moral Maze’ on Radio 4 – evidence is presented by a diverse range of experts and then examined and discussed in order to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the subject.

For the ‘Line of Kings’ we were lucky enough to hear from two of our own staff about the current collection on display and on existing research material regarding the history of the Line, complemented by presentations on the Restoration period from Dr Jacqueline Rose (Author of ‘Godly Kingship in Restoration England: The Politics of the Royal Supremacy, 1660-1688’) and examining the horse in mythology & culture from Dr Elaine Walker (Author of ‘Horse’, a study of the horse in cultural history).

After a lively and challenging debate, our conclusion was that we needed even more information – focussing on both the Royal Armouries’ collection and its use in the ‘Line of Kings’ and this history of the Line at the Tower of London.

Research: The project, therefore, began not with the commissioning of designs but rather in the exploration of archives, the consultation of experts in areas such as wood and paint analysis and the collation of reports – all aiming for one outcome – the unlocking of the secrets of the origins of the ‘Line of Kings’ which in turn would inspire us to create our new exhibition.