It’s been a privilege to work with National Trust staff and volunteers for the ‘Virtue and Vice’ exhibition, and a real thrill to get the occasional peek into areas of the Hall that are usually closed to visitors – including the attics! But working in an Elizabethan house poses some unusual challenges, to put it mildly…
Think of an exhibition, and you imagine a group of artworks or objects hanging together in a purpose-built suite of whitewashed rooms. Hardwick is, of course, a historic building. Keeping it open to visitors means constant work for the conservation team (who you can follow on twitter). For us, it’s meant the tricky problem of staging an exhibition in a room where we not only can’t put anything on the 400-year old walls, but have to rely almost entirely on natural light, filtered through the curtains which screen the Hall and its contents from direct sunlight.
The Elizabethan and early-Jacobean objects which remain at Hardwick are certainly beautiful. They are also very rare (sometimes unique), deeply vulnerable to wear and tear, and, in many cases, absolutely huge! There’s no question of moving things about or bringing them together in a single space. And as much as I would love to be able to bring in objects from other Trust properties and important national collections, that’s an extraordinarily complex – and expensive! – business.
Finally, the exhibition space we’re using (once Bess of Hardwick’s bedchamber), is tucked away at the end of the first floor, almost at the end of visitors’ tour of the house. Since the aim of the exhibition is to offer a novel perspective on Hardwick, we needed to work out how to alert people to key ideas as they explore the Hall, meaning that visitors are primed to enter and enjoy the exhibition when they reach it, and make connections between the information we’re providing and the wonderful fabrics and furnishings they’ve already seen.
We’ve embraced these constraints, responding creatively to build an exhibition that sheds new light (but not literally!) on the wonderful collections at Hardwick and uses both new and old technologies to extend the exhibition throughout the Hall – and even beyond. At the heart of the exhibition are our information panels: free-standing banners, whose luxurious design is intended to reflect and reproduce the rich textures and colours of Hardwick itself. In the exhibition room, these are accompanied by cases, in which we’ve reproduced letters between Thomas Cromwell and William Cavendish, and included some wonderful early modern books – a side to Hardwick that visitors rarely see.
The core banners introduce visitors to the key ideas of the exhibition, map out a timeline of this turbulent period, and explore our central themes. We’ve also produced seven banners which are spread throughout the Hall, closely linked to significant objects. Our hope is that visitors who are intrigued by the information we provide as they navigate the house will enter the exhibition room with a sense that it continues and expands the journey they have already begun.
On each banner, we’ve used high quality images to remind visitors of objects they’ve already seen, and reveal new and unexpected details. A number of our images also capture objects held in other important collections, including the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Each of these bodies has been generous in allowing us to use pictures of their collections to try and make new links that indicate Hardwick’s important place within a broader heritage and history.
The same idea lies behind our mobile app (out now on android, and very soon for iphones!). You can use the app to enjoy a self-guided tour of the Hall, either as you walk around, or from the comfort of your sofa before and after your visit. Or you can go to the themes section, to explore the broader culture of the period and find out how Hardwick and its stories fit into that context. There are a couple of lovely audio surprises to discover en route as well!
Galleries in the app link the collections and themes of Hardwick to other important objects and contexts, giving a rich sense of the cross-currents that linked – and now, thanks to new technologies, can continue to link – communities and histories across Britain, Europe, and the world.
We’ve even included a walk around the estate for those who are feeling especially adventurous.
For me, it’s been especially interesting to think about layering information, whether by dividing up the banners into an essential central text and two or three captions that give a different perspective, or imagining how someone might navigate between the virtual landscape of the app and the real space of the Hall and exhibition.
We’ll be using the blog as a space to give some extra details about key objects, and to highlight new discoveries and connections. At a recent workshop, two National Trust volunteers introduced us to two wonderful objects that we hope to share with you soon. The exhibition, then, like Hardwick, is a dynamic and connected space. If you do get the chance to visit, please do share your thoughts, feedback, and reflections with us – we would love to hear from you!