“In the centre of the room was one of my favourite activities: a large collaborative artwork. Each visitor was invited to draw and colour in a tiny section of a photograph of Hardwick, and add it to a 260-square grid. By the time I left at the beginning of September, over 1,000 visitors had finished four pictures, and some of the care and talent they put into it was exceptional.”
In the second part of her blog post on her AHRC-funded Innovation Placement at Hardwick Hall, Lauren Butler shares how she transformed her research into interactive displays. (You can read part one of Lauren’s post here).
WRoCAH Alumnus (2015 Cohort)
University of Sheffield
After spending three months researching the social history of Hardwick Hall, I began working with the house and collections team to plan a refresh of the displays in the kitchens. We hesitated to use the word ‘exhibition’ because our aim was not to create a finished product. So much of our knowledge of life on the estate and in the house came from the generosity of volunteers and visitors, we wanted to continue with this collaborative approach that allowed the interpretation to be shaped by feedback, both now and in the future.
A National Trust colleague introduced me to the term ‘minimum viable product’, an approach which begins with the launch of a prototype, and is then built on and shaped by feedback from its target audience. It has been adopted as an approach to co-curated exhibitions by museums such as the V&A, and seemed the perfect term to describe what we were trying to achieve at Hardwick.
In June 2019 we installed a number of small displays and activities focused on the stories that came out of the new research. In the old servants’ hall, we reinstated a large photograph of Hardwick’s servants in the 1890s, with new information about each of the people and corresponding hats which visitors could try on. In the centre of the room was one of my favourite activities: a large collaborative artwork. Each visitor was invited to draw and colour in a tiny section of a photograph of Hardwick, and add it to a 260-square grid. By the time I left at the beginning of September, over 1,000 visitors had finished four pictures, and some of the care and talent they put into it was exceptional.
In the kitchen, we told the story of the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Known as the bachelor Duke, he died at Hardwick in 1858 after making many ‘improvements’ to the Hall’s contents, including cutting up tapestries to make them fit the staircases. The majority of the copper batterie de cuisine in the kitchen was acquired in his time, and put to good use by his extravagant French chef Monsieur Jean Henri Aberlin (later chief cook to Queen Victoria). Displays included the 6th Duke’s wheelchair, with quotes about his final days from his footmen, who carried him up and down the stairs and wheeled him through the passageways. With so much emphasis usually placed on the physical separation between masters and servants, it felt like quite a radical act to tell this story of reliance and intimacy, and to place an ‘upstairs’ character in a work space (where, his diaries and recipe scrapbooks suggest, he visited from time to time).
In the Still Room, (named for distilling but later used for the preparation of jams, cakes and sandwiches), we focused on life at Hardwick during the majority of the year when the Dukes and their families were not in residence. Visitors were able to try on a replica of Bess of Hardwick’s 16th-century cloak, as the housekeepers encouraged tourists to do (with the real thing!) in the nineteenth century. We also hinted at the social lives of servants who threw parties and lived at the Hall with their own families.
After looking at the displays and having a go at various activities (sniffing boxes of food deliveries, folding napkins, rearranging plates for a banquet a la Russe), we encouraged visitors to leave comments about what they would like to see happen with this research in the future. I carried out more focused evaluation during a series of ‘Meet the Researcher’ days, where I told stories, answered questions, passed around handling objects and collected questionnaires. We had several hundred responses. While everybody seemed to have a different idea about what they wanted from a country house kitchen, the overall message was that people enjoyed the mix of stories and activities, and the deeper insight they gained into the history of the property and the variety of people who had lived there. I loved my placement at Hardwick, and I’m very grateful to the National Trust, WRoCAH and the AHRC for the opportunity to design and manage my own project.