University historian previews Richard III Visitor Centre

Posted by pt91 at Jul 24, 2014 01:10 PM |
Review of 'Richard III - dynasty, death and discovery' by Professor Norman Housley

The Richard III Visitor Centre

'Richard III - dynasty, death and discovery'

Review by Professor Norman Housley, University of Leicester

The new visitor centre is a fine example of local cooperation, involving the city, the cathedral, the university, and local and national representatives of the Richard III Society. At an open day at the dig in September 2012, City Mayor Peter Soulsby saw that Leicester Grammar School, next to where the dig was in progress, was for sale, and he realised that it would be a prime location for a visitor centre in the event that the remains were confirmed as Richard's. The Victorian building does bring constraints, above all the ground floor corridors are rather narrow. The first floor space is better, and the new entrance atrium is impressive and welcoming.

The highlight of the new centre is unquestionably the discovery trench. This is housed in a new stone extension with a sloping ceiling, cleverly designed to get visitors automatically to bend their heads as they approach the glassed over grave site. You can walk over and around the former grave, and a flashing outline of the skeleton reveals how it lay at the discovery. The pit includes shards of 15th-c tiles found in the follow-up dig of 2013, broken when the body was laid to rest in 1485. Overall, this is a highly evocative space, with stone seating around the walls. As my guide Sarah Levitt, the head of arts and museums, explained, the point is to allow visitors to reflect on what they have seen. It works very well. You feel yourself to be in the presence of an extraordinary historical event and an equally extraordinary archaeological one.

Above: The highlight of the new centre - the new stone extension (top) with the glassed-over grave site (below).

Before that, the visitor encounters history - dynasty and death - on the ground floor, and discovery on the first floor. There is nothing here that is dramatically new, but there are numerous nice touches. A beautiful display of white roses graces the entrance atrium. The events of the Wars of the Roses visually unscroll before your eyes, in front of a throne of England (pictured left), rather like the opening sequence in 'Star Wars'. There is atmospheric use of sound - tolling bells for the death of Edward IV, chanting monks at the interment of Richard, the thunder of horses' hooves at the king's charge at Bosworth. There is excellent visitor interaction, including the option of voting on whether Richard was guilty of killing the Princes in the Tower, and the opportunity to recreate the king's face by moving body parts into position (pictured right). There is also some good Leicester background, including an audio-visual overview of what the city looked like in 1485.

This centre is located at the heart of a substantial redevelopment of the city's historic core, with some beautiful landscaping of the area between it and the cathedral, around a hundred yards away, where the remains will be reinterred in March 2015. This includes two sculptures, the heroic representation of Richard that used to stand in Castle Park, and an impressive new metal sculpture called 'Towards stillness: twelve moments in time from Bosworth to the discovery of the remains'. From spring 2015 visitors will be able to take in the visitor centre, the tomb, and of course Bosworth Battlefield.

The new centre has an ambitious visitor target and time will tell whether the 'Richard III factor' brings the numbers hoped for. But those who do come will find that this new centre adds a lot to their experience. And the citizens of Leicester will have a historic heart that they can be proud of.

 

Above: The Visitor Centre hosts a replica of Richard III's skeleton and of an MRI scanner used in his identification.