Problems encountered by modern visitors to the site

In recent years English Heritage has restored certain parts of Eltham Palace, and this has been done with great expertise. However, because of certain essential changes introduced by English Heritage in order to accommodate hundreds of visitors every day, visitors will now find it much more difficult to interpret the rooms.

Firstly, visitors are not allowed to enter by the front door in the west facade. This is because if the front door were left open, all the heat would escape and the building would be very cold. Visitors must therefore enter the building through a corridor in the servants’ quarters, and the west facade is blocked off, so that they do not see this astonishing sight. The significance of the Roman temple entrance is lost, and visitors do not see the Ionic pillars which symbolise Stephen Courtauld’s philanthropy; nor do they see the bas relief of Hospitality, which tells of Virginia Courtauld’s generosity. The humour of entering the Roman temple, only to find oneself suddenly in a transatlantic liner, is no longer experienced by visitors.

Inside the building, every door has to be left open. From a practical point of view this is certainly essential; if each door were to be opened and closed by thousands of visitors, serious damage would be done to the fabric of the building. However, all the open doors completely destroy the effect of each simulation. The entrance hall needs to be viewed as an enclosed space, whereas now, with four doors open and the daylight streaming through, and with distracting views of the dining room and the drawing room beyond, it would need a great deal of inspiration and imagination to see the area as the lounge of a Cunard liner. In Virginia Courtauld’s bedroom, the sliding doors which provide the vital clues about the identity of the room are permanently open, ie concealed behind the panelling of the room, so that no visitor would ever again be able to discover the meaning of the room for themselves; also, the tabernacle above the bed has been removed. In Stephen Courtauld’s bedroom, the bathroom door is left wide open, so visitors miss the delightful surprise of suddenly being plunged into the illusion of the Mediterranean sea, and also the trompe l’oeil effect of the bedroom itself is lost. And so on throughout the building. Also, the sheer effect of being surrounded by dozens of visitors wandering around is in itself enough to destroy the illusions. The illusions are fragile and easily lost.

It is difficult to see how English Heritage could overcome these problems. Perhaps one solution would be to make a film of a visit to the empty house, with explanations of the symbols, effects and simulations. If visitors could see such a film before entering the house, they would then be able to understand it more fully. Even better would be a virtual reality experience of wandering alone around the empty house, discovering all the hidden doors, exploring the secret rooms, and feeling the full effect of the simulations. Certainly more work needs to be done to solve the problems.


Eltham Palace: The House of Secret Messages

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