Kensington Palace reopens to public

A general view shows Kensington Palace, what used to be the official residence of the late Princess Diana, in London, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. Kensington Palace has been transformed following a 12 million pounds (US$19 million, euro14.4 million) restoration project timed to be completed for this summer's Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics. ((AP Photo/Matt Dunham))

March 20, 2012 9:41:48 AM PDT
It's the past home of Queen Victoria and Princess Diana, the future residence of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge -- and, it's hoped, a stop on tourists' London itineraries.

Kensington Palace -- part museum, part royal abode -- is reopening to the public after a two-year, 12-million-pound ($19-million) makeover designed to give visitors a sense of what it is like to live in a centuries-old building that has witnessed both affairs of state and affairs of the heart.

Senior curator Joanna Marschner said she hopes the renovated building will shake up preconceptions about royal palaces, offering both the "big, glorious, golden rooms" that people expect, and a trove of more personal, revealing items -- from Queen Victoria's baby shoes to Princess Diana's little black dress.

"I hope what we have done will engage people who have always thought 'a royal palace is not for me,"' Marschner said Tuesday. "And for them to realize that these remarkable buildings -- part of the DNA of the city -- are for them."

Tucked into Kensington Gardens, a public park in central London, Kensington Palace is a warm red-brick contrast to gray Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II's London home.

It was home to six British monarchs, including Victoria, who spent her childhood here, and now contains several royal "apartments" -- actually Georgian houses, one of which William and Kate will move into next year.

It also has dozens of rooms that are open to the public. The public side of the palace reopens Monday, in time for a busy tourist season that includes the queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June and the summer Olympics.

Project manager Jo Thwaites, who oversaw the renovation, said the changes involved "peeling back the layers of Kensington Palace in order to reveal much more for visitors to enjoy."

Formerly shielded by hedges and fences that made its public entrance hard to find, the palace is now much more welcoming.

The entrance from the park lies beside a lovely ornamental garden surrounded by manicured lawns on which visitors are encouraged to dawdle. It comes as a surprise to find the signs posted there do not say "keep off the grass," but merely warn people to take care on steep slopes.

Many visitors will head straight for a ground-floor display of dresses belonging to the palace's most famous recent occupant, Princess Diana. She lived here for 16 years after her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981. After her death in a Paris car crash in 1997, thousands of mourners came to leave flowers outside the palace gates.

Display cases hold garments including a black silk taffeta gown by Emanuel, a Versace cocktail dress and a fuchsia Catherine Walker gown, alongside sketches of the garments and photographs -- all revealing, according to curator Deirdre Murphy, "Diana's evolving style and the important role fashion played in creating her public image."

Upstairs is an exhibition devoted to Victoria, the only British monarch before the current queen to reach 60 years on the throne.

It includes the room where she was born and the room where in 1837 she was informed, at age 18, that her father had died and she was queen.

Personal items range from her first pair of baby shoes to a pair of the royal stockings -- along with Victoria's delighted description of how her husband, Prince Albert, helped her put them on.

Their marriage is traced from romantic start to tragic finish, with displays including Victoria's ivory silk wedding gown and the black dress she wore in mourning after Albert's death in 1861.

Further on are the grand state apartments originally inhabited by King William III and Queen Mary II, husband-and-wife monarchs who sat on the throne from 1689. It was they, Marschner said, who hired architect Christopher Wren to transform "a modest-ish 17th-century house into a baby palace."

The rooms are grand, with Old Masters and gilded statues aplenty -- but they also tell a moving human story.

With no children of their own, William and Mary pinned the succession hopes of their Stuart dynasty on Prince William, son of Mary's sister Anne. The only child of Anne's 18 pregnancies to survive infancy, he was a lively but delicate boy who died after falling ill while dancing at his 11th birthday party.

His death sparked both family mourning and a constitutional crisis. With no obvious successor, Parliament weighed the claims of 43 possible heirs before settling on a German cousin, Sophia of Hanover. She died before she could take the throne and her son became Britain's King George I.

"In these rooms William and Mary debated what to do," Marschner said. "Here they played with their little nephew, willing him to live.

"That is an extraordinary, compelling story." ------