The Palace Museum of Tomorrow

By Esther Griffin – van Orsouw

Stories of royal and noble courts capture the imagination of millions of people all over the world. If we look at the offer on streaming services, we see historical titles such as ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, ‘Versailles’, ‘The Cook of Castamar’, ‘The Last Czars’, and ‘Downton Abbey’, to name but a few. Palace museums enjoy similar interest, promising the visitor to ‘walk in the footsteps of royalty’ or ‘to feel the royal’s aura as a living experience’.[1] Such fascination is not a big mystery in itself, but court history has more to offer than anecdotes of violence, intrigues, splendour, and scandal.

The PALAMUSTO network

How can we research life at early modern courts in a new way? What are the major similarities and differences between residences across Europe? How can these comparisons be explained? And how do we translate the findings to a museum audience in a responsible way? These are some major questions of the ‘PALace MUSeum of TOmorrow’, or in short ‘PALAMUSTO’; an Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission as part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.[2] The PALAMUSTO network includes European universities, heritage institutions, and palace-museums. Their aim is to train ten early career stage researchers (ESRs) in the specialist field of court history and the palace-museum.

In this blog, I will explain a bit more about the objectives and methods of this training network and I will show that there is more to a palace-museum display than meets the eye.

Academic training and research within the network

The project started in October 2019 with the recruitment of ten ESRs from different academic backgrounds. Each candidate was selected to research a different aspect of courtly life and architecture in the early modern period (roughly 1400-1800), for example the bedroom, cooking and dining, and aspects of gender. Under guidance of an academic supervisor and a mentor from a heritage institution, the ESRs have defined their individual research plans and are now in the process of executing their research which includes visiting palaces and consulting primary sources in archives.

Apart from individual supervision that should help the ESR obtain a PhD, the network also provides five specialised modules – called training weeks – that focus on the palace-museum. These modules include readings, lectures, Q&A’s, and in person site-visits that teach the ESRs about the specific historical conditions at court as well as how to conserve, curate, and manage the palace-museum.

Figure 1. On-site training at Heidelberg Castle, Germany, November 2021. Photo: E. Griffin.

It is easy to get distracted by all the glitter and glamour of the palace or the drama of its occupants and to dismiss the court residence as a subject of serious investigation. However, the architecture, objects, and ceremonies were all part of a system of power that was crucial to the development of our society today. Ever since sociologist Norbert Elias studied social structures at court, other research on the architecture and use of palaces and court residences followed.[3] Key publications are Architecture et Vie Sociale from the collection De Architectura by Chastel and Guillaume, the series Zeremoniell und Raum by Paravicini and more recent publications by the PALATIUM network chaired by De Jonge, to name but a few.[4]

PALAMUSTO takes the next step by using a multi-disciplinary approach and introducing digital humanities to the mix. More specifically, the ESRs will make use of a Geographic Information System (GIS), which is probably best known by the general public for its use in everyday navigation when driving a car or from the maps on a smartphone. Each ESR translates historic data from their individual research, so it can be read and understood by the GIS software and uploaded to an online GIS platform.

By mixing and matching the different topics and data from all over Europe, we hope to discover new connections and new patterns of diffusion of objects and ideas. This leads us to ask questions that can form the basis of new research in the future. We expect our findings to transcend national borders, thus signifying the relevance of the court residence as a place of exchange and an important part of present-day European cultural heritage. Simply put, the PALAMUSTO project tests the use of available GIS software for the study of court history on a continental scale.

Figure 2. GIS experiment by M. Fraikin and M. Wiedemann, October 2021.

A palace-museum is not a palace

Historical research and education are not the only aspects of our training. We also learn how to work together with museum professionals and tell our stories to the public. After all, a palace-museum is not a palace. An academic historian focusses on the past in a more theoretical way and can often spend much time on the study of a topic at hand, but a museum is an institution that receives guests and needs to deal with practical, legal, and societal issues, while conveying their message to an audience during a relatively short visit. This theoretical and practical reality need to meet in the middle, guaranteeing the best visitor experience possible. This brings forth all sorts of questions:

How do we explain changes in the architectural structure of a building? How do we successfully show different uses of a space in a single display? How can we stay true to historical facts, while taking practical matters like crowd control and safety precautions or state regulations regarding heritage and conservation into consideration? How can we show an empty building as a living machine without its former inhabitants? What is the best place for an entrance, a shop, or guest facilities? How does a palace-museum deal with issues like inclusion or climate change? How can we serve all the different stakeholders that are invested in a museum best?

Figure 3. Routing, demarcations and signage in the Magpies Room at the Palácio de Sintra, Portugal, October 2021. Photo: E. Griffin.

Palace-museum professionals have to deal with such questions while running the day-to-day business. The ESRs have the opportunity to better understand what this means by continuous interaction with heritage professionals during the project, but mostly during a hands-on secondment at a palace-museum. In return, the ESRs offer the museum staff a bridge between the academic and museum world, as well as fresh eyes that treat palace museology as heritage of present-day Europe.

So, next time you visit a palace-museum, think about everything going on behind-the-scenes or the many choices that have been made before the opening of a new exhibition. And perhaps you will meet one of the ESRs of our project, getting trained to become specialists in the interesting field of court architecture, history, and museology!

Esther Griffin – van Orsouw is an Early Stage Researcher of the PALAMUSTO network and a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw, Poland. Her individual research focusses on art collections of Polish and European royals and nobles in the late 17th and early 18th century and the use of digital humanities to study such collections.

[1] As we can read on the website of Historic Royal Palaces and the Sisi Museum (consulted 01 November 2021).

[2] This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 861426.

[3] Norbert Elias,  Die Hofische Gesellschaft, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969, 2007).

[4] Jean Guillaume,  Architecture et vie sociale à la Renaissance. L’organisation intérieure des grandes demeures à la fin du Moyen Age et à la Renaissance, (Actes du colloque tenu à Tours du 6 au 10 juin 1988; collection De Architectura fondée par André Chastel et Jean Guillaume) (Paris: Éditions Picard, 1994); Werner Paravicini,  Zeremoniell und Raum, (Symposium Der Gottinger Residenzen-Kommission Der Akademie Der Wissenschaften 1994) (Sigmaringen: Jan Torbecke Verlag, 1997); PALATIUM, Publications on their website (consulted 23 November 2021)

All images belong to the author and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Cover Image. Royal Łazienki Palace, Warsaw, Poland, September 2020. Photo: E. Griffin

Figure 1. On-site training at Heidelberg Castle, Germany, November 2021. Photo: E. Griffin.

Figure 2. GIS experiment by M. Fraikin and M. Wiedemann, October 2021.

Figure 3. Routing, demarcations and signage in the Magpies Room at the Palácio de Sintra, Portugal, October 2021. Photo: E. Griffin.

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One Comment on “The Palace Museum of Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: A Royal Bedroom: Gender, Class and Material Culture – History Journal

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