I defend my bonnet again! Well, not literally – but I explain my philosophy

Interview by Tim Jones in the Borehamwood Times

Historian, author and broadcaster Lucy Worsley is the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that looks after Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and Kensington Palace among others. Tim Jones spoke to her about her mission to make history as popular as the X Factor.

LUCY WORSLEY has been described as a new generation of historian who understands people’s real lives. Her BBC TV series If Walls Could Talk saw her reveal the intimate history of the British house, examining the history of the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room, highlighting their development from Norman times to present day.

It was a series which saw her dressing up in period clothes, spending the night in a Tudor bed, and even not washing for a week.

It’s a hands-on approach, however, which means she is not without her critics. Most recently, historian Alison Light accused her of “cheapening history” by “dressing up in bonnets and climbing in and out of carriages”. In other words, she is accused of not taking history seriously enough.

Such criticism ignores the scholarship of her published books – she has a PhD and her first book, Cavalier, was the result of ten years spent delving through the archives.

“I’m not interested in television for television’s own sake, just as a medium for history,” she says, talking to me in her office at Hampton Court Palace.

“Normally curators read books to do our research and live interpreters in costumes are learning through doing. There’s a bit of a divide between historians who read and historians who ‘do’.

“For the filming of If Walls Could Talk, I had a go at being a historian who ‘does’ for the first time really, it was like leaping over a fence and being in a bold new world!

“It’s a shame a lot of historians look down on them. If they don’t write it down and provide footnotes, it’s not taken seriously by academics.”

Charting changes in social history, how people dressed, their diet, health – in other words everyday things – are just as important as constitutional history and the history of foreign affairs, she says defensively.

Lucy’s enthusiasm for history is only too evident as she talks. She is equally passionate about instilling that enthusiasm in others and is adamant that history matters.

“History teaches you to understand the present and predict the future to some extent. It teaches you analysis and to question sources, to assemble an argument.

“But the main thing is, it’s enjoyable,” she says, banging her hand on the table to emphasise the point.

“That’s my honest reason for doing it,” she adds. “I think it’s my job to try and help other people have that same enjoyment.”

At school, history was the one subject that didn’t seem to her like working, she says. She is still in contact with her own history teachers, Miss Darcy and Mr King, who originally inspired her.

But how history is taught in schools has become very politicised, she says.

“There is clearly not enough of it. I think it’s outrageous that people are allowed to drop it at 14. History is so present in popular culture it seems really odd it’s not a higher priority in schools.”

Last year she told an audience of 700 National Trust members during a debate that her job would not be done until history had become as popular as The X Factor.

She now admits it was a “slightly inflammatory thing to say” as she concedes there are some aspects of The X Factor which are offensive to some people.

“I actually like The X Factor a lot. So when history is that popular I might start saying ‘yes, there’s too much of it. People are bored with history. We don’t need to learn history in schools any more. People know too much about history – when we get to that point, then I’ll pipe down.”

As a charity that receives no grants from the government or Royal Family, Historic Royal Palaces is totally dependent on visitors to ensure the buildings are maintained for future generations.

During her time as chief curator, Lucy’s attempts to bring history and the royal palaces to life have transformed the experience of visiting a historic property compared to that of a few years ago.

But trying to attract families who are more likely to consider visiting a theme park or Pizza Hut than a historic property, she acknowledges, is not easy.

“They worry about coming to Hampton Court in case the kids get bored and disturb other people or go around and break an object. We have to make sure the kids have a fun time.

“So now the visitors are given a velvet cloak when they arrive. I thought this was a crazy idea when I first heard about it. Who’s going to do that? But people spend a bit of time choosing the cloak, the colour and showing it off to the people in their group as well.”

Visitors to Hampton Court Palace today are virtually taken back in time as they see Henry VIII with his courtiers and other characters from the Tudor court.

Next year will see a new exhibition about the mistresses of Charles II.

At Kensington Palace, extensive building work before a grand reopening next year meant either it had to close completely, or all the art works would have to be removed for safety and something else done with the space.

A theatre company was invited to create a live exhibition called Enchanted Palace which tells the stories of seven different princesses who have lived at the palace over the centuries. Dresses designed for each by such contemporary fashion designers as Vivienne Westwood have helped draw a new type of audience, Lucy says.

All this, of course, doesn’t please everyone, especially the connoisseurs wanting paintings, furniture and architecture.

“It’s great for younger visitors,” Lucy admits. “But it’s not been everybody’s cup of tea. It’s been a bit Marmite.

“You can’t please all the people all of the time.”

Some of her critics would call this approach to history dumbing down, saying it trivialises the past.

Lucy once again springs to the defence: “How can you seriously argue it’s a bad thing to try and bring properties to life?

“The arguments are all about scholarship and inaccuracy and somehow cheating visitors if you make a modern intervention, and you’ve got to be careful of all those things.

“But the balance has to be in trying to get more visitors and giving them a good and fun and educational time,” she insists.

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