What makes the new Richard III Visitor Centre “insulting”?
You might notice a bit of a theme going on here. First Stonehenge opens a visitor centre that is roundly trashed by the press (and subsequently praised by their travel journalists). Then the British Museum’s new extension and Vikings exhibition is labelled boring – and attracts huge numbers of visitors. Now we have a third archaeological museum milestone, in the shape of a visitor centre for Richard III in Leicester. And while the press seem largely to like it, not everyone does.
Perhaps we should have expected that those who want Richard’s remains in York were never going to let it go quietly, though the judicial review found against them. Their online comments are frequently racist, rude and, it seems, universally stupid. We can leave them alone.
But neither are Philippa Langley and her supporters happy, and they deserve an audience. One of them has described aspects of the new centre as “insulting”, “grotesque”, “ghoulish” and “spurious”; says the Looking For Richard Project team feel “belittled” and “sidelined”; and claims their expressed concerns were “overridden by the university’s insatiable desire to position itself as the driving force behind the search for Richard III, rather than – as all Ricardians know [All? Did they hold a poll?] – the interlopers who stepped in and grabbed overall control.”
Let’s start with something positive. I was in Leicester on August 7 to hear the announcement about the reburial ceremony, which we now know will be in March next year. It’s going to be a big event, described by the cathedral as having “the character of a state funeral” (while admitting that it is neither state nor funeral), with the royal household represented (by who knows who). There will be a week of events:
Sunday March 22
Leicester University transfers Richard III’s remains into a lead-lined coffin which travels to Bosworth, accompanied by a cortege. It arrives back in Leicester, at the cathedral, in the early evening where there is a service of reception.
Monday–Wednesday March 23–25
The king lies in repose by the cathedral font, his coffin covered with a pall. The cathedral will be open to visitors, as always, but this will be a unique moment, with people coming from around the world to witness a coffin holding someone who died nearly 530 years ago, before it is buried.
Thursday March 26
Service of reinterment, broadcast on Channel 4, which has exclusive live rights, with an evening programme of highlights (whatever else she receives, Philippa Langley deserves a big gong from this British broadcaster).
Friday–Saturday March 27–28
The sealed tomb is revealed, with a service to mark the completion of reinterment and to think ahead.
While this is going on, there is a programme of events, featuring preparations for the reburial, results of scientific research into the remains, the story of Richard’s reign and the impact of the discovery on Leicester; and, after reinterment, looking to the future. In this as in much else, it will be an unusual occasion: lectures as sideshows.
The Richard III Society has said it is also planning its own events for the week, which will include a special service at the cathedral for members on Monday March 23.
So where last time we had a panel announce the result of the judicial review, on this day the cathedral hosted Matt Webster (Fairhurst Ward Abbots Conservation), the Very Reverend David Monteith (Dean of Leicester) and Phil Stone (Richard III Society chairman) – you can watch the video of the presentations here. Monteith began with the date and details of the reburial events, and news that His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester is to be patron of the cathedral’s appeal in support of the reinterment – their target is £2.5m, of which they say they have raised nearly £1m. There will be no admission charges to the cathedral, said Monteith in answer to a question. The memorial stone on the floor, on the site of the future tomb, will be removed and cared for, but where it will end up has yet to be resolved (“We hope it will be somewhere in the environs of this part of the city”).
FWA Conservation have already started work in the cathedral, with alterations to the wooden screens and furnishings, and stone floors.
Outside, the cathedral’s landscaping project is nearly done, and work continues to tidy up and pedestrianise the street. When it’s all finished, there will be a lovely open space with trees, gardens and memorials that reaches from beyond the visitor centre across St Martin’s and the cathedral grounds, and embraces the medieval Guildhall. For now it takes a bit of imagination to see through the muddle.
Dallas Pierce Quintero’s new sculpture looks the corporate confusion the name suggests. I didn’t like the proposal on the screen (as I say in my book, I opted for Michael Sandle’s idea, while recognising it was never going to be selected), but these things can look quite different in reality. If this is different, it’s worse: ugly, clunky and difficult to read (even if you have it explained, which it shouldn’t need). It looks as if it may have to be permanently fenced off for fear of accidents with kids, it doesn’t respond to changes in the light and it evokes no emotions in me at all. But please defend it if you disagree!
In its favour, it gives the old and now refreshed Richard III bronze – which doesn’t do much for me either – added strength in its new site. Sentimental meets flat.
Which leads through to the visitor centre in the converted old school. In the next photo you can see how the site looked in 2013, when the second excavation was in progress in the school playground. The space is now filled with the entrance lobby, which doubles as a small shop (so you exit AND enter via the gift shop – of which of course I approve, if it means you look at my book).
Getting this visitor centre right was a double challenge for Maber Architects and the exhibition creators Imagemakers and StudioMB: it had to be fitted into a historic and complex building with limited space over two floors separated by steep stairs, and, furthermore, incorporate a grave with the appearance of no more than a rough hole in the ground; and the schedule was ridiculously tight, requiring an opening date before research into its subject was completed. My immediate impression is that it has been done remarkably well – there are some very clever moments. Yet I also have misgivings. There are some fundamental points I think it may have got wrong, whether for reasons of policy or practicalities.
It begins with a video wall, with characters in period dress wandering about in a candle-lit stone chamber. When I entered, there was a man in a cap and leather waistcoat measuring up another man’s deformed, naked back. My first thought was, it’s Blackadder (and I’m afraid I heard someone else say the same thing) – then, no, Horrible Histories! But the quality of the thing soon became apparent. It’s very well done, and if you take the seven minutes and concentrate, you can learn a lot.
The display then proceeds with two themes: Richard III’s reign and death on the ground floor, and the story of the dig to find his grave, and the science that followed, above. Down is dark, noisy and theatrical. Up is bright and clean, with different typefaces and a yellow and white colour scheme (for the dig) and silver and various bright colours for the science. There are lots of effective videos, graphics and text boxes (aided by high quality university photography and video clips from Darlow Smithson), with a surprising amount of stuff to get through – the centre suggests you need around 90 minutes for the tour.
When you move from one floor to the next, you get a sense of the problems presented by the site. You leave Richard dead on the battlefield, and enter a stair well with doors off to a café, toilets, a lift and who knows what else. There is a big notice, but you do wonder where you are. The spell is broken.
Difficult decisions must have been made about what to show of the original building, and what not. Is Newton still there somewhere, for example? I missed him if he is.
Upstairs, the dig story is told in two parallel narratives: by the archaeologists on the wall, and by Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society on the table (and both versions are very much in the protagonists’ words). It looked to me like an effective solution to a difficult problem, as the stories really are quite different, yet ran at least partly concurrently. Before this starts, there is a scene setter – equivalent to the video wall downstairs – that asks us to think about how Richard III has been portrayed and understood (a striking exhibit here is a replica of Ian McKellan’s costume for Richard III as dictator).
There are some imaginatively chosen artefacts, including the digger bucket that found Skeleton 1, Philippa Langley’s wellies and Mathew Morris’s hi-vis jacket.
There’s a nice view out over the courtyard and entrance lobby below, where you can see (if you know what you are looking for) the sites of the friary church and Richard III’’s grave (under the furthest copper and brass roof, beyond the wall), and the cathedral spire in the near distance – soon to mark Richard’s second grave.
All of this pretty much follows the same narrative as my book, so I’m not going to complain about it. Finally, if you can find your way there, you get to see the grave, in a private room of its own back down on the ground. You approach through a wide corridor at the back of the shop, which looks across the courtyard and has a pleasant cloister-like effect. The burial chamber is really the only entirely new space (the reception area is bounded by existing walls). The roof rests on a ring of glass, that allows natural light to settle on the stone floor and walls. At the back a long glass panel runs across the floor, through which you can see dirt – the ground level reached by the dig in 2012 that found the grave, and in 2013 that expanded the area around it. If you know what you’re looking for (to coin a phrase), you can see the edge of Trench 1, the first one excavated in 2013.
This could easily have gone very wrong, but it’s calm, respectful and contemplative. There’s plenty of space should large crowds come, and no intrusive branding or information panels – which on the downside can leave you wondering exactly where you are, or even what you are looking at.
So overall, there’s a lot to see and discover. It’s not tacky or cheap. Apart from a wall of hinged shields on the ground floor (you open a shield and read a text), which is starting to come apart, it all looks well designed and well made. I didn’t read everything (which I will on another visit), but what I did contained no obvious errors. A remarkable amount has been achieved on a budget of £4m – and the council didn’t sell anything off to pay for it.
But as I said at the top, I do have reservations. Some of the problems undoubtedly arise from the nature of the site, abetted by the rushed schedule. It’s a shame you have to pass through so much clutter between the history gallery and the dig upstairs (as I emerged into the light with the sound of medieval battle in my ears, I could hear a hand dryer not far off) – though that could be mitigated perhaps by a more ambitious cafe, whose aromas of coffee and fresh baking might pervade the hall (not something that looks about to happen).
That sense of fragmentation continues with the grave, which is physically remote from everything at the centre. Many would argue that is how it should be – it’s a grave, not an exhibit, and should be respected in its own right, not roped into a wider scheme. But should that also apply to the connection between the former grave and the cathedral, soon to be the site of the actual grave of Richard III? Nothing I could see drew the visitor’s attention to the link, either physical or narrative. Perhaps that’s to do with timing – the judicial review into the reburial found for Leicester only in late May. But neither did the grave seem to have much to do with the exhibits upstairs.
A second reservation I have is about things. I’ve mentioned a few exhibits, but there really are very few. In the long term, any display that hopes to convey the impact and story of the dig needs more original artefacts (I didn’t see one thing that had actually been dug up). It’s great to have Morris’s jacket, but its impact is diminished by an adjacent exhibit, described as “This kind of mattock was used in the excavation” – supplied by ULAS, perhaps, and exactly what they would have used on site, but not THE mattock.
Which leads me to my next point: there’s no tarmac. If no one at the time thought to rescue the white R (marking a reserved space) that inspired Philippa Langley, there can have been no shortage of broken tarmac around when the king’s remains had very likely been found. Not only is there none in the display, the whole context of the grave in the car park seems to have got lost.
Perhaps that results from a misconceived idea about respecting the person, but whatever the reason, it’s a serious mistake. That Richard III was found in a municipal parking lot is indelibly written into folk history – it’s arguably one of the key things the world now knows about the Plantagenet king. It’s also an important part of the story, an apt symbol for the Henrician desecration of the friary and tomb, and subsequent events that led to the almost miraculous survival of the grave underground. Yet, notwithstanding references in the exhibition upstairs, nowhere at the centre, even at the grave site, does the sense come across that all this land was once a couple of car parks, now entirely removed or hidden behind a new stone wall. For that you have to nip down New Street and see how the now famous view into the Social Services car park looks (see here for earlier views of this development). From here you also get a view of the former school, looking rather odd with its whited-out windows, and what in the local context seems to be an inappropriate stone wall on the site of the original brick wall. And you are reminded, perhaps, that there was more to this site than a grave: the medieval friary, which for the archaeologists was a significant discovery, has also got rather overlooked.
You might think this leads into others’ complaints about the show, but only in the sense that others do have reservations. The latter are entirely different from mine.
A specific point has been expressed by Philippa Langley, in what she describes as an advance copy of a letter to the editor of the Ricardian Bulletin, published by the Richard III Society.
Langley was invited by Leicester City Council, she says, to write the Looking For Richard Project’s story for the new visitor centre. She was later “dismayed” to see her text had been changed by Leicester University, who removed her reference to “£800 remaining from the Ricardian International Appeal”, which she believes paid for the excavation of Skeleton 1. In its stead, she says, the text reads, “Richard [Buckley] says he isn’t digging up any burials until he knows for certain about their ‘context’, that is how they relate to the layout of the church.” She sees this as the University “suppress[ing] the role of Ricardians and their funding”. “It was your funding”, she tells them, “that allowed me to give instructions for the remains in Trench One, which proved to be those of the king, to be exhumed despite the scepticism of the archaeologists.” She also complains that John Ashdown-Hill’s genealogical research has been subsumed within a university presentation. Elsewhere she has written, “we are fighting behind the scenes and lawyers letters have been sent”.
If you have read both her book (co-authored with Michael Jones) and mine, you will already have noticed that Langley and the archaeologists have different views of how Skeleton 1 was excavated (as in other matters). Having spoken to many people on the dig, and also from my understanding of how any archaeologist would have acted in the circumstances – and ULAS’s are particularly experienced in just this type of work – I have no doubt the archaeologists’ version is nearer the truth. I have no reason to think that Langley does not believe her version to be correct, but that does not make it so. The display text seems a sensible compromise.
So why the fuss? Why, in Annette Carson’s words, is the Looking For Richard Project “saddened and profoundly disappointed by the exhibition”?
This is getting tedious, and I’m not going to go through it all blow by blow. You can read about it on Carson’s blog. She has edited a little book (Finding Richard III: The Official Account) written by Ashdown-Hill, Langley and David and Wendy Johnson. Absurdly – given that it includes almost no description of the excavation or science, and no references to any archaeological publications about these in the bibliography or footnotes– it is described as “the full story of how Richard III was found”.
That last point is germane. You cannot expect sensible, busy people to take you seriously if you appear deliberately to confuse the record. Some might feel that that is what Finding Richard III: The Official Account does, in a petty way that diminishes everyone, not least the important role of the Richard III Society and its members in the whole project. Let me offer just a couple of examples.
Part of the book is given over to an explanation of how Ashdown-Hill established a genealogical link between Richard III and a living person, enabling potential DNA verification should the king’s remains be found. The emphasis, as often elsewhere, is on exactly when Ashdown-Hill did what, as he is keen to establish primacy in his research – a sign of amateurism that bedevils this debate. It really doesn’t matter. Good research will speak for itself. Evidence suggests that comprehensive documentation of the genealogical link (as well as the important discovery of more than one) was done by the university, in particular Kevin Schürer, and by not recognising that (as the exhibition correctly does), Ashdown-Hill damages his own work.
However, my point is that notwithstanding the space devoted to this issue about genealogy and DNA, elsewhere the book seems to show that for them it had little impact on the discovery of Richard’s remains. As Philippa Langley has often said (and as she told me, as I describe in my book), Ashdown-Hill’s research was critical in giving her the confidence to pursue her quest for the grave. But when it came to it, the Looking For Richard Project put little weight on DNA. They didn’t like the “intrusive” scientific studies. They don’t mention the overwhelming cost of pursuing DNA verification in their excavation budget (page 52, which thus allows them to claim the Richard III Society funded just over half of it, the omitted DNA research being paid for by the university). They had decided before DNA analysis began that Skeleton 1 was Richard III’s. So in their eyes, the DNA doesn’t matter. So why bother with it?
My second point relates to an already public dispute – it came up in court in the judicial review – about a contract between Leicester University and Philippa Langley that supposedly gave her protective rights over the king’s remains, pending reburial. It seemed an odd thing, but neither side had published the “contract”. Finding Richard III: The Official Account, has.
The key passage is in the Written Scheme of Investigation (published here in full for the first time), para 5.7. When the research is complete, it says, any remains identified as those of Richard III are to be “transferred to the custody of the Client [Philippa Langley] … for reburial. At this time, the remains will be placed in a hand-made coffin… [and] transferred to the nearby Abbey of Mount St Bernard… where they will lay in a place of continual prayer and worship before private reburial in Leicester Cathedral.”
This is indeed an odd arrangement, surely one that ULAS would now wish it had not agreed to. On what basis would we expect the newly found remains of an English monarch to be given into the private custody of an individual with no special qualifications for the purpose, and no guarantees for the safety of the remains, or indeed anything that might happen to them? It seems likely that Langley insisted on the clause, and that ULAS acceded, as we know highly sceptical that the royal remains would be found, or the project would not have gone ahead.
In the event, the exhumation licence, obtained after the WSI was drawn up and issued by the Secretary of Sate for Justice – on both accounts making redundant WSI para 5.7 – explicitly places the responsibility of looking after human remains onto ULAS, who were obliged to keep them “safely, privately and decently… under the control of a competent member of staff.” ULAS was in no position to break that condition.
Even without the exhumation licence, it seems highly unlikely that para 5.7 would have been followed. It was one thing to make such an arrangement before the remains had been found. Events entered another world when they were. Suddenly the dig, and the finds, were of international interest, and the concern of many more than the Richard III Society and ULAS. Para 5.7 would have been forgotten about. Flexibility and common sense would have prevailed.
As indeed they have done with reference to other conditions in the WSI. In both this (paras 4.3.5–7) and a private Reburial Document drawn up by Langley and colleagues (page 63 in the book), are strong restrictions on photography and filming. They are complex, but give close control to Langley over how Richard III’s remains, if found, should be recorded, and who should see the images. Again, you wouldn’t have expected either archaeologists, or a TV company (which Langley had herself brought in), to have agreed to such clauses. One can only imagine that they thought that if the unlikely event of finding Richard III actually occurred, everything would change.
It could hardly have come as a surprise that, when Richard III was found, Darlow Smithson wanted to amend this part of the WSI. So Philippa allowed them to film, on “the strict understanding that [it] would be for the historical record and not for wider dissemination” (page 55). Though not mentioned in the book, there must have been another amendment. Which is fine and sensible. As is amendment of any other unreasonable clause in the WSI.