I'll be honest: I enjoyed my first visit to Kensington Palace a lot more than I did this latest visit. No, it wasn't the miserable weather we've been having—we actually picked a nice Sunday to drive into London and park at Hyde Park. I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it, but I think there's just one multimedia installation too many at the new Kensington Palace.
After a £12 million refurbishment, Kensington Palace is pretty spiffy. There's a new entrance area (well, it's actually old, as is the palace: it was built in 1605) where you can purchase tickets. But forget about an audio guide: those are apparently old school now at visitor attractions in 2012 London. Instead, you might find, in one gallery, audio recordings of courtiers whispering in the window seats, typical 19th century gossip about the occupants, William and Mary or perhaps Queen Anne, who lived here during the time she gave birth to 17 children (none of whom lived past age 11).
And one room pays poignant tribute to those 17 dead babies: 17 sad little high chairs, with place settings for each. Not something you typically see at grand historical residences—I give the restorers full marks for fresh ideas.
Another room was decorated with paper birds hanging from the ceiling—I never figured out exactly what they were meant to represent. In fact, the whole place was a mystery. Not only was there no audio to explain the various rooms, but very little information was presented in a straight-forward manner in each of the different areas: the King's State Apartments (which later were the apartments of Queen Anne); the Queen's State Apartments, and the special exhibit, Queen Victoria Revealed.
I could have used some room guides, or some sort of explanation near each object. Instead, there were large cards hidden in the King's Apartments, a game that was never really explained—though now I read online, at their website:
From room to room, hidden cards can be discovered and mysterious performers will divulge clues to the curious to help them collect a winning hand. The space of the King’s Apartments will become a social arena once again, where visitors are encouraged to trade cards, seek conversation and encounter the unexpected.
Hmmm. I did not encounter anything unexpected, like for instance some knowledge about what the rooms were once used for. Instead, I found information about such things in all the usual places: the guidebook, a must-read if you want to get full value for your visit to Kensington Palace.
But it wasn't all a confusing jumble: in some places, the multimedia was very entertaining. I especially enjoyed watching the footage of Queen Victoria's Jubilee parade, along with the enhanced still photography projected onto an adjacent wall. And in another room, a hands-on puppet theatre thrilled the seven-year-old accompanying us on the tour.
An exhibit on the royal family tree, explained via shadow boxes arranged in a familial pyramid, had the potential to be quite interesting. Unfortunately, the display area was cramped, and with several other visitors already peering into the small shadow boxes, I decided to read the information about how George I came to inherit the throne after Queen Anne's death in a less crowded format: at home, while sipping tea and perusing the guidebook.
The most fascinating thing about Kensington Palace is the fact that so many royals were born there, died there, lived there, and loved there. There were happy marriages, and unhappy marriages. Children grew up in its many apartments, including a young Queen Victoria, Queen Anne's doomed children, and the current monarch-in-waiting, Prince William, and his brother Harry. Edward VIII called Kensington Palace the "aunt heap" because so many minor royals lived there as elderly widows. The Duke of Edinborough, married to the current monarch, grew up there and left for his wedding from Kensington Palace. Celebrities visited Kensington, too: Peter Sellers, Rudolph Nureyev, and Elizabeth Taylor were all guests of Princess Margaret, sister to Queen Elizabeth.
A few of the royal visitors and residents left their clothing behind: some of the best displays are the dresses and costumes of courtiers, both male and female. The brocade whalebone dresses, the plumed slippers, the red velvet coronation robes, the sad mourning dress of Queen Victoria—all are from the collection of royal wear, regularly rotated from the display cases to preserve them from damaging light. In less-delicate condition are the dresses of Princess Diana, displayed in a special area on the ground floor, along with the designers' sketches and photos of the glamorous princess wearing the gowns.
The gardens weren't overlooked in the refurbishment. The Sunken Garden, "an intimate, tranquil and secluded oasis", was recreated in 1908 to replicate the style of sunken gardens in the 17th century. You can't enter the garden itself, but archways overlooking the garden provide secluded viewpoints—although one was occupied by a pigeon when I peeked through. I don't blame him for stopping there—it's a beautiful spot. As Samuel Pepys said of the original formal garden at Kensington, "It's a might fine cool place—with a layer of water in the middle."
If you can get past the flaky multimedia presentations and figure out what you need to know, Kensington Palace is a must-see for any visitor to London. I highly recommend buying a guidebook, taking it out to the Orangery gardens, and perusing it before entering the palace. That way you'll at least have a good idea of what you're looking at.
Otherwise, you can take your chances with the card game.
Kensington Palace is open from 10:00 to 18:00 daily until October 31, when it closes an hour earlier. Last admission is an hour before closing. Admission is £14.50 for adults, children are free. (You can purchase a membership to Historic Royal Palaces and get admission to several royal locations around London—worth it if you plan to visit more than three.)
More photos below, since photos are allowed at Kensington Palace!