Two completely different sorts of visitor experience in as many days. The first was a trip to a country house in Hampshire, very near where I grew up but which remained shamefully unvisited by my younger self – I blame the parents.
The Vyne dates back to Tudor times and has (I think estate agents would say “it boasts”) its own chapel, unusual for a house so small. Although it is small, there’s much to see and the house has an intimate, homely air. In one of the drawing rooms, a 19th century occupant decided to raise the ceiling. When he discovered that the structure prevented his planned improvement, nothing daunted, he simply raised the centre of the ceiling by eight inches and decorated the edges. The whole effect was a bit eccentric but charming, rather like the house itself. In the same room stands a Broadwood piano, commissioned by the unsuccessful interior designer. When I mentioned that I’d learned on a Broadwood as a child, I was invited to sit and play. I had to admit that perhaps “learned” was an exaggeration; “had lessons” was more accurate, so I declined. But what a pleasure it was to visit a house where the attendants – all volunteers, one assumed – were actually attentive, eager to share their knowledge, proud of The Vyne, but not pushy, really adding to the pleasure of the visit. It’s some time since I visited a National Trust property, and perhaps they are all as well staffed as this one, but if so, they are an object lesson in how to enhance the visitor experience. The laminated sheets one carries round have the bare minimum of information, really just what each room is and perhaps one or two things to look out for. In this way, one actually engages with the building just as one does with any other house. Logical too: after all, how often does one enter someone’s home to be greeted by a lengthy explanation of each room’s fixtures and fittings?
The grounds are beautiful and beautifully kept, too, and there are lots of events throughout the year. A lovely summery day, so people were lounging in (National Trust) deckchairs, gazing at the swans drifting past on the lake. An excellent tearoom, too, with local produce, and a second-hand bookstall, suggested donation 50p.
I wonder if they’re looking for any more volunteers?
And then, yesterday, to Goldsmiths Hall in the heart of the City, to see Gold: Power and Allure. It’s hard to imagine a more different experience than that of the previous day. The free exhibition takes up several galleries and has been well thought out and organised thematically (sporting gold; military gold; religious gold; jewellery; money; and so on and so on). Goldsmiths Hall itself is extremely imposing, no doubt designed to impress and intimidate, and where visitors were talking it was in the most hushed tones imaginable. I’ve heard louder voices in church. I’m not sure whether it was the building or the gilding that provoked such a decorous response, but it was definitely not a situation that invited exuberance.
The artefacts themselves were overwhelming, not just the workmanship or the antiquity or the history or the sheer beauty, but the number and volume. I felt completely Midassed by the end, but each case had something to offer the weary eye, and the exhibition makes clear why man has always lusted for this material, for its purity, its malleability, its haughty indifference to being buried underground for thousands of years until someone thinks its grave might make a good car park.
The objects, gleaming enticingly in showcases, were well lit but not, alas, well labelled. The resistance to assigning a numbering system to the artefacts so that one can deduce which object the label describes, results in visitors having to guess, or count up and down or from left to right (it wasn’t consistent either), and quite possibly get it wrong. There were also typos (“Nepolean” Bonaparte), and an assumption that visitors would know the ins and outs and technical terminology of goldsmithing, and would therefore not need definitions or clarification. Some of the objects are more compelling because of their associations – a toothpick given away by Charles I on the night before his execution, as a thank you for kindnesses rendered during his time in the Tower; a cigarette case presented to the Duke of Portland in 1913 by the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Others had a timeless quality, particularly the Anglo-Saxon torcs, which looked as modern as any necklace made today, pieces simple or elaborate and breathtakingly gorgeous
In the end, the exhibition was a bit like the subject itself: rich, intense, concrete and abstract. But only with the personal objects did I feel any real connection; I could imagine wearing that ring, using that coffee spoon, opening that snuffbox; but I couldn’t engage with the formal ceremonial gold – the maces, plate, swords, coronets. No doubt it’s my problem, but I can see myself swanning around a grand country house, just not eating off gold plate day in, day out.