The Tower of London

As I start to think more seriously about a career in museums, I find myself actively evaluating the way that the museums I visit are set up. There are so many different things you can do to attract and engage visitors, and to teach the history of the site.

I went to the Tower of London on Wednesday. It’s one of the places I didn’t get to see the first time I was in London, two years ago.

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I was a bit hesitant at first, because it costs quite a bit of money to get in. Especially when a lot of great things in London are free. Nevertheless, I decided it would be worth the gamble.

I didn’t know how much was in the Tower of London. There are three distinct sections (I lost my map halfway through so I’m hoping I didn’t miss any). There’s the Medieval Palace, the Jewel House and the White Tower.

I started in the Medieval Palace (Inner and Outer Wards on a map), and to me this was the most interesting part. It was built by Henry III and is still set up in medieval fashion. The most interesting part, for me, was that they had a display that outlined the different layers of the King’s bedding in the Royal Chamber. Underneath they had samples you could touch of what silk filled with feathers feels like, or linen filled with horsehair. There was a chapel set up as well.

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It was here, too, that you could see the place where they later kept the prisoners and the really interesting carvings done on the walls by the prisoners. They had all of these covered by glass panes and then beside that they had the stories of the prisoners who carved them.

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I thought both techniques were really good ways to give visitors the feeling of what it was actually like, back then. I loved touching the different fabrics. They also had sample tiles and other things you could touch. This is really important, I think, because I know that I always stand behind the barriers just itching to reach out and touch a wall or a rug or whatever. It makes it seem more real.

The carvings were great, it went along well with what people normally think of when they think of the Tower - imprisonment and torture. And to be able to read the stories right at the relevant carvings, it was like you could picture them sitting in the tower, making their mark on the walls.

There were also several videos throughout this section that told the general story of the royalty at the time it was built and stories surrounding the Tower. They were good movies because they were concise - they told the stories in an engaging way, but you didn’t feel like you were standing and watching a whole film in the middle of a historic building, like those videos often tend to do.

The next part I visited was the Jewel House and the enormous collection of the Crown Jewels. To be honest, I had no idea that these were here. It was a complete surprise to me (though I would’ve found out in about .3 seconds had I read the travel guide.) It was quite stunning, though. I liked the way they had this set up as well. There were cases with jewels and such, and beside was a text panel. The text was concise and interesting, focusing on the stories behind each crown or other jewel.

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When you enter the bottom half, the very secure area which I believe is underground, you filter through a set of queues to go through the collection. While you stand in these queues you watch different movies on a screen in front of you. One shows the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The next show close ups of various pieces in the collection. They’re very interesting, but this is mostly designed to prevent a bottleneck effect and direct you through the building properly. I definitely found that about the Tower of London - they always know exactly where they want you to go next and you’re always being led up one way and down another, so that not only do you see everything without having to think too hard, but you also don’t run into people coming the other way. I’ve heard the Tower is extremely busy in the summer, so that’s probably why they have it so strategically planned. It’s interesting and something I’m not used to in museums - I’m used to people sort of wandering every which way.

Now you can’t take pictures in the Jewel House. I’m sure this is for security purposes. But I was a bit disappointed because I would’ve liked to have a few pictures of the collection, it was so stunning. At the same time, I also appreciate that if you were allowed to take photos than the very important line would be endlessly held up by people trying to take a decent picture of something behind glass and inevitably failing quite miserably.

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The next part of my visit was to the White Tower. The White Tower is apparently the oldest part of the Tower of London. I say ‘apparently’ because I just learned that from Wikipedia, and didn’t know that when I was looking around it. This their temporary exhibit space, and it’s unfurnished save whatever exhibit they have at the time. The exhibit this time was called “Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill.” It shows the evolution of King Henry VIII’s armour. They have little diagrams showing him getting fatter through the years, it’s quite entertaining. On the glass cases they have quotes from primary sources, first painting him as a glorious, brave and handsome soldier, and then in the later years talking a bit about his obesity and disease.

It was a very interesting exhibit. They had computers set up where you could see close ups of the detailing on his armour, which was really the most interesting part.

My only criticism of the White Tower is that because of this exhibit, you didn’t get to learn much about the history of that building or the architecture. Which was surely interesting.The other side, opposite the exhibit, had some information, but mostly it was just games and simulations aimed mostly at children. The games, though, were quite cool. You could try to shoot an arrow, see what it’s like to look through a metal helmet, sword fight, etc. This room was crowded and the lines for such activities were huge. It’s a great way to appeal to all ages though, to keep the kids from being bored at walking around all day looking at jewels and armour.

Obviously, the Tower of London has a fair bit of money to do what it wants as a museum. This definitely shows. Museums are evolving, incorporating new technologies and tactics to make history interesting. Museums are no longer drab places solely for history buffs. They’re for everyone, now. They’re completely approachable. And if they do it right, like the Tower of London, they’re still interesting to history buffs too. It’s interesting to look at the top museums and attractions in the world and see what they can do, to think about what I’d want to do with a museum that I (hopefully) someday work at. And to think how I would incorporate these ideas (even just a little bit) in the museums I’ve worked at in the past.

4 Comments

  • By Sebastian, September 13, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    Oooh! I love the Tower of London. Not been for a long time though. Those Crown Jewels are something eh? And as part of the Commonwealth they are yours too!

    Look up ‘Hever Castle’ and tell me if you’d be interested in seeing/visiting it. My grandmother is, er… involved… there.

  • By Gillian, September 13, 2009 @ 4:51 am

    I visited the Tower of London when I was in London last year. I enjoyed it, and my favourite part was the crown jewels. So shiny!

    Although… I don’t think it’s my favourite museum, I think I liked the British Museum a bit better.

  • By Eleni, September 15, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    I wrote a paper freshman year in college about the desire to touch things in museums. It was an awful, boring paper, and I’d done my best to forget about it, but it tickled my memory when you mentioned wanting to touch things so they’d seem more real.

    I remember the Crown Jewels being my favorite part of the Tower of London. We bought one of the books at the souvenir shop so we could have pictures of them.

  • By Christine Sweeton *The Chris*, September 15, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    The Tower of London is very well done. I have been twice and honestly feel that if you can do only one thing in the city it is to go there for the day. (I hope you got a tour from the guards as well.) As you know, I am also very critical of museams. Oh, I judge.

    In my opinion, the best place is Science North - hands down, no comparison. If I must I may add Best Science Centre Ever and then it need not complete against museams and historical locations, but I think it could hold its own if it did.

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