Exhibit Review: 'Richard III at Guildhall, Leicester'

This exhibition opened in the Guildhall on February 8th and will run until 2014 (presumably when there is a new museum that will take it's place). Likely many people who have been paying attention heard about the visitor numbers in the first weeks it was open, with up to 7-8000 visitors attending each day and line ups around the corner of the Cathedral! Clearly, Britain seems interested in Leicester's newest claim to fame.

If you have visited the Guildhall you know how small it is. The exhibition has been set up in the 'new' area before the cafe, where they normally keep extra seating. As such, it is a small room, barely large enough for an exhibit space, and limits severely the number of visitors who can be inside at any one time. I would guess a limit of about 30 people is all the area can handle, but I didn't take a chance to count. They usually let people in in small groups of 3-4 every minute or so, as others leave.

Obviously there is a great deal of information, both historical and archaeological, to be told about Richard III and the Leicester dig. The small also severely limits what they can tell and so there is perhaps not as much detailed description as officianados would like, however for the general public it seemed quite sufficient. The layout is well done in the small space and visitors move down the right and then around the room and the back to return to the entrance. As such, there is a steady flow. However, this also makes it difficult to look at everything in the same visit, and I've found that a return visit is definitely necessary if you want to read all the information and watch the videos/audio.

Down the right side of the room are large panels that tell more of a history. The first panel gives the arguments for and against the well-know 'view' of who Richard III was as a king. There are two audio recordings that are of experts giving their views. Each audio is a couple of minutes long and there is really not enough time to list to both. However, a brief summary of the arguments is on the text panels and this is probably enough for most people. The rest of the panels down the right side of the room tell about Leicester during Richard's time, the sites in the city that are important to his stay before the Battle of Bosworth and his burial. There are some few objects within the text and quite a few pictures, so at no point does it feel like a daunting amount of information.

However, the bulk of the exhibit is down the centre of the room and tells the story of the dig of last August from the point of view of the four main people involved:

Prof Norman Housley (historian)
Mathew Morris (archaeologist)
Jo Appleby (bioarchaeologist)
Turi King (scientist)

The first panel is from Mathew, and I will say that I quite enjoyed the video of him that is part of the display. It was much more interesting to watch than the Channel 4 documentaries that were on this winter! It's rather long, at least to watch the entire thing, but you can see and hear it as you approach and then move on, so you can't catch most of it before the visitors behind you force you to move on. The text on these central panels is descriptive but in short segments and big font, though there is a lot of it. There are some clear display cases between the panels that let you see objects, such as floor tiles, recovered during the dig, but as anyone who has been paying attention knows, there was not much found last year of note.

The visitor moves down the room, with the panels on the right and left to the end of the room.  At the end on the right is a panel about Grey Friars, which tells an interesting history of the site that I did not know about! Well worth a read of the text here and there is enough room to pause and take your time. On the left at the end of the central line of the exhibition, is the 'big interactive' that was reported in any of the news reviews of the exhibition opening. It is a two sided interactive tabletop, which allows about 4 people to view it at once, and will take commands from a person on each side. Both times I have visited the exhibit there have been people waiting behind to use it. It can take quite a while to go through, but visitors usually only look at a few things before moving on.

The interactive is of the skeleton with all of the wounds and marks that were identified showcased. You can press on each site and a text panel pops up with a zoomed image and explains what it is and what might have caused it. It seems to be something most people enjoyed and I would have happily stayed there to go through all the choices, but I wanted people behind me to have a chance.  Above the table is a cast of the skeletal head and you can clearly see the rather large hole in the back.

This leads around to the far side of the room (back towards the entrance) where you get more text panels about the skeleton and what few 'big questions' were asked at the time, such as why the feet are missing, was it an arrowhead in the ribs (no, it's a Roman nail that made it's way into the gravesite) and questions about the scoliosis evidence of the spine. Again, no more detail really than the Channel 4 documentary, but still interesting to see the pictures and text together!

Then there is a few panels about the DNA evidence and the conclusions that were reached. At the very end, near the entrance/exit is a short panel about 'The Future' which, alas, doesn't really say much at all. It was the only part of the exhibit I felt was a real let down. Just a few sentences about continued testing and eventual reinternment.

A good visit would take about 20-25 minutes I should think, or two shorter visits. Obviously on days the place is less busy it would be easier to spend more time. I would suggest that if you are planning to pop in for a visit, to do so during the week. Weekends still achieve a rather long line and the wait can be upwards of 30 minutes standing outside. As well, avoid holidays and half-term breaks!


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