The Tower of London is the the most visited site in the United Kingdom – last year alone three million people passed through its gates. How should its medieval history be presented?
This was the topic of a paper given by Sally Dixon-Smith one of the leading curators for Historic Royal Palaces, the body that manages the Tower of London. She spoke last week at the International Medieval Congress, held at the University of Leeds, as part of the session ‘Engaging the Public with the Medieval World’. Her paper ‘But Where are the Dungeons?’: Some Challenges in Presenting the Tower of London to 2.5 million People a Year, was one of three aimed at demonstrating how to engage the public at historical sites, and in the classroom. Dixon-Smith spoke about how she engages visitors to the Tower of London and how curators can handle visitor expectations while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the historical experience.
What is the Tower of London About?
The Tower of London can be a bit of a confusing site, it has a lot going on in one space. The castle today is how you would have seen it by 1300 but the White Tower was built by 1100. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has three separate museums: The Royal Armouries, Historical Palaces, and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Even today, it still a functioning army base! Dixon-Smith explains that there are days where they have over 10,000 people on the grounds and up to 70% are international. Many international visitors of them have little knowledge of English history or don’t speak English as a first language so there is a challenge in presenting important information when language can be a barrier. Dixon-Smith is interested in improving the approaches to interpretation and is concerned that the language provisioning isn’t done well enough. She also notes that some of the way the Tower is presented dates back to the 1840s and needs to be updated.
What are People coming to see at the Tower of London?
Dixon-Smith reveals the most popular aspects of the Tower of London:
- The Crown Jewels
- Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII
- The Ravens
- Beefeaters (Yeoman Warders)
She adds that torture/gore aspect was a part of the history but a very small part of it, so there is some disappointment when visitors realise that and you have to manage those expectations.
Difficult Choices: Things We Don’t Say
Dixon-Smith mentioned the difficulty in selecting what stories to tell that will interest the visitor and what stories to leave out. She cited one example to do with Traitor’s Gate, which was built by Edward I. What’s not said during tours is that this building was financed by a large tax on the Jewish community under Edward I, who went on to expel the Jews from England in 1290. Why is this not addressed? The Tower of London may have a dark and violent past but this particular tale isn’t one that can be spun into something digestible. The financing of Traitor’s Gate off the backs London’s Jewry would seem like a very relevant piece of information about the Tower’s history, and while it may be of interest to most historians, stories like these are often left out for the average guest. One the one hand, some pieces of history are left out because they aren’t that captivating and may only appeal to specialists, and then there is also, as this story poignantly illustrates, some inherent embarrassment; this isn’t a story that makes one feel proud to share with visitors.
Communicating to the Masses: The Dumbing Down Question
“Are you dumbing down?” is the most common question asked of Dixon-Smith. It is also one that she dislikes, stating ‘I don’t think clarity of communication is dumbing down’. She explains there has to be a balance between making history accessible, and informative, yet captivating, to everyone who comes to the Tower. Since 70% of the visitors are not from England, it’s important to make English history comprehensible while still retaining authenticity and accuracy. This is a struggle faced by all curators as they change exhibits, and the ways people move through or interact with the material and spaces around them.
For myself, and many people at the paper, engaging the public with medieval history (any history for that matter) has always been extremely important. As cuts hit the humanities, donations from alumni trickle out, and the general public asks: why is this relevant, why should we continue to fund these subjects? Papers like hers bring back the focus as to why history is important today and how to connect it in fun and interesting ways for the non-specialist.