A curious charity runs five Royal Palaces as strictly business. And does a very good job…
On behalf of the British Nation, the Queen owns amongst other assets the Tower of London, The Banqueting House plus Hampton Court, Kensington and Kew Palaces. However, the daily business of catering to these iconic sites is left to a private registered charity on behalf of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
On a yearly basis this charity – Historic Royal Palaces – manages the set-up behind the more than 3,5 mill people, who visit these palaces, which are among some of the greatest ever built.
The charity does this with the help of the income from visitors, members, donors, volunteers and sponsors. It is important for the foundation to let it be known that it does not receive any funding from neither the British Government nor the Crown.
According to the latest Financial Statement (2012) this generated £69 mill, an increase of nearly 11% on 2011. During the same fiscal year the numbers of visitors grew with 4%, numbers of volunteer-hours grew with 12%, while income from the retail shop garnered an additional 8%. Quite astounding figures in a year, when the financial crisis has put a general damper on the UK economy overall generating no more than 0.8% growth.
How is it done? According to the mission statement this achievement is a reflection on the “panache” – that is the flamboyant manners and reckless courage – which should characterise the work of the “Historical Royal Palaces”. And indeed, visitors at the different locations are met with volunteers playing their roles to perfection working to both enlighten and entertain in surroundings coloured by any and all stimulants, which might tickle the senses.
The Crown of Henry VIII
One such element is the exhibition of the faithful replica of the crown of Henry the VIII, which will go on show at Hampton Court Palace at the end of October 2012. No doubt it has been the topic of endless discussions whether to use the money or not for making a faithful reproduction, where even the gems – apart from the large diamonds – are true rubies, emeralds and pearls. Nevertheless the decision was made to go through with a nearly authentic replica; probably the leaders of the project knew that any tacky reproduction would garner exactly the kind of disappointment, when such “crowns” are on show (as e.g. in Prague); probably the point was also made, that many visitors to the Tower become really irritated of paying more than £20, while being quietly told to “move along”. Hopefully this will not be the case at Hampton Court Palace, where the replica crown will be on show in the newly restored Pew in the Royal Chapel.
Puritans might feel that it is all too overwhelming. And yes, it might seem as if the inspiration from the Tudor TV-series have gotten the better of the creative managers of the Royal Palaces. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the infamous Tudor Series has a part to play in the present growth. From 2007/08 – 2011/12, while the show was aired, the number of visitors at Hampton Court Palace grew with 18%. But then, we are told that not only showmanship is a governing principle; to this should be added Guardianship, Discovery and Independence. It is a difficult balance to achieve.
This last year has seen the conclusion to a number of projects: The reopening of Kensington Palace and the royal kitchens at Kew Palace plus the new exhibition of the Crown Jewels at the Tower. However it does not end there. 2014 will be the tercentenary of the accession of the first Hanoverian monarch, George I. Plans are to redecorate and refurbish the Baroque Palace at Hampton Court as well as re-present the King’s State Apartments at Kensington in order to tell the story of the very early Georgian Court. Finally the Orange Garden at Hampton will be re-laid. At the same time the charity is seeking status as a research foundation, thus forging better links between showmanship and guardianship. (As is the case with the reconstruction of the crown of Henry VIII, which built upon detailed research by Dr. Kent Rawlinson, one of the curators).
All in all the Historical Royal Palaces is a remarkable business venture. It tells the story of how it is possible to make history fun and entertaining, while at the same time keeping a healthy respect for the guardianship of pieces of precious heritage. Indeed it demands the ability to balance on a tightrope!