Profile in 'Arts Industry' magazine
Breaking the Mould
Dr Lucy Worsley as chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and a champion of popular history. She is one of Cultural Leadership’s 50 Women to Watch.
Sipping tea from a china cup in a booklined eyre high up in a hidden tower in Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, Lucy Worsley looks almost demure, perhaps even donnish.
But a few minutes with the sparky, feisty and hugely enthusiastic Worsley soon dispels any suggestion that the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces is cast in the traditional mould. Indeed, anyone who has seen her on TV’s One Show stomping round Victorian toilets or clambering into Regency corsets could not possibly mistake her for one of those dry as dust historians who fear that talking directly to the public will somehow devalue their academic credentials.
‘I like to confound people’s expectations of curators’ she says, offering another prodigiously jam laden scone from the palace kitchens.
The writer of bestsellers like Cavalier and Courtiers is one of a new generation of female historians, along with Bettany Hughes or Alice Roberts, who enjoy blurring the divide between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ history. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, they are equally at home in front of a lecture theatre or a TV camera.
But Worsley was not born to a life amidst dusty archives. She is at pains to remind people that she is definitely not related to the Worsley family who occupy the stately pile of Hovingham Hall in North Yorkshire and have the Duchess of Kent somewhere in the lineage. Her father was a scientist, an expert in glaciers whose globetrotting entailed a peripatetic childhood for her daughter.
‘I studied science to please him’ she says, but a few weeks of A levels convinced her that she really wanted to switch courses to the humanities.
Her father’s response was ‘You won’t earn a living with a history degree’ – a fact of which she cheekily reminded him at the launch of Courtiers – the Secret History of Kensington Palace, her second successful book.
Her degree was at New College, Oxford, and her vocational moment arrived when she realized that it was someone’s job to look after the lovely old college buildings. ‘The die was cast. I knew I wanted to go straight out of Oxford and run historic houses’.
Which is exactly what she did – extending a vacation job at the privately owned ‘slightly mad’ Milton Manor House, a stately home in Oxfordshire, to a year long post. It gave her a solid grounding in the mechanics of looking after an historic building and in how to pull the punters in with what she calls ‘slightly eccentric re-enactments of major moments in history’ – such as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
After a year there she started work at The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as secretary to the revered society’s mills section, a flattering title for what was a one-person operation. Again her skills for popularizing unpromising material came to the fore – a giant ‘millwheel’ birthday cake for the 50th anniversary of the section earned acres of publicity.
Two years later she was at English Heritage as an assistant inspector of ancient monuments based in the East Midlands region. ‘It was’ she says with characteristic delight ‘a brilliant job’. The region’s treasure house of buildings from Hardwick Hall to Wigmore Castle was a vast playground of interesting stories ready to be unearthed and presented to the public.
She was a major influence on the restoration and revamp of Bolsover Castle – a flagship regeneration project for an area badly knocked about by the 1980s recession. With £3.5m of EU cash, she says, ‘it was a fairly significant project to be involved in – one which really changed the town of Bolsover in a kind of Guggenheim effect’.
The project saw visitor numbers double and gathered up a clutch of prizes. But it also instilled in Worsley a sense of mission – that he task was to ensure visitors got to know a building better, even if it had been on their doorstep for years.
It was also here that the young heritage professional developed a steely side. ‘In an ambitious project like that, there are always going to be huge rows’, she says. ‘You are always arguing your corner – making the case for more history and standing up for your subject. First you have to convince your colleagues and then the public’.
Worsley’s popular approach did not endear her to the traditionalists but she adds ‘I wasn’t bothered. Indeed I took it as a compliment’, she adds. ‘I like to shock in a cheeky way’.
English Heritage promoted her and encouraged her to undertake a PhD thesis on William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle and architectural patron.
But academe still did not beckon. Instead she decided to turn the thesis into a book – Cavalier. ‘I could see then that this was a great story and really deserved to be heard by a much wider audience’.
She left EH for a brief spell as research manager at Glasgow Museums. But while there she got a call from headhunters asking if she was interested in a job at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which runs the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace.
She couldn’t resist. HRP, having survived a difficult birth and early years, was now on a sounder financial footing but needed to rediscover its defining purpose, she says. Part of her role was to help create that vision. ‘We needed to overcome the perception that it was government run or funded by the royal family. And we needed to tell people that these old buildings were part of their own story’.
The consequent revamp and blockbuster exhibitions on Henry VIII at the Tower of London and Enchanted Palace (in Kensington) have boosted revenue and visitor numbers with what Worsley calls a ‘combination of guardianship and showmanship’.
The next big project, due to be unveiled in 2012, it a major reorganization of Kensington Palace to make it more visitor friendly and ‘bring out the stories’ lurking in rooms which have been underused or blocked off to the public.
But first Worsley will once again be beamed into our living rooms, blacking Victorian kitchen ranges or having a bath in milady’s bedchamber in a BBC4 series If Walls Could Talk – An Intimate History of the Home.
She is pleased that more women are visible in the world of heritage and history. ‘It’s not before time’, she points out. ‘Unless you represent your users, half of whom are female’, you will not be able to do your job’.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley