Open Palace Programme – The Palace of Holyroodhouse.


Sutherland Forsyth explaining the column structure in the quadrangle of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Day 2 and Day 3 of the Open Palace Programme Scotland were held at the royal residence, The Palace of Holyroodhouse. Our group was led by Sutherland Forsyth (a most Scottish name), Learning Curator, during our time at Holyroodhouse. Sutherland is in a recent position, that functions as a critical link between the curatorial team and the learning staff at the palace, looking at interpretation throughout the property.

We were also privileged to meet Deborah Clarke, the senior curator at Holyroodhouse, who gave us an in-depth tour of the house and spoke to us about the Royal Collections Trust. The structure and governance of the Royal Collections Trust, in addition to the fact that Holyrood is also a living royal residence, make this an interesting heritage site for investigation. We do not have anything like this in Australia, so it was interesting to hear about management issues that are unique to Holyroodhouse and the UK.

The palace has to operate both as a popular tourist attraction and heritage site, as well as a working Royal residence. This is an official residence of the Queen, and members of the royal family will often stay here whilst in Scotland on official business. Princess Anne, Princess Royal, was staying at the palace whilst we were visiting as she is the patron of the University of Edinburgh and was there on an official visit. We did not encounter the Princess Royal during our time there, and this is testament to the well-oiled Holyroodhouse machine.


Deborah Clarke, Senior Curator, explains the history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse to OPP participants.

In terms of interpretation as a heritage site, the interpretation focuses on three main moments/significant figures in the history of the palace; Mary, Queen of Scots, The Cavalier Stuarts (Charles I, Charles II, James VI & I), and Bonnie Prince Charlie & the Jacobites.

The palace is in the process of rearranging displays and Mary Queen of Scots’ rooms have recently been rehung. The team are actively working on a new multimedia guide for the palace, which currently has an audio-guide available (the majority of interpretation information is available through the audio tour, rather than in the different spaces of the palace). Room wardens also engage with the public and are able to answer questions about the palace, its stories and the collections. This happens when visitors ask questions of the wardens, or during the warden ‘short talk’. During these lightning presentations, wardens point out their favourite features of, or objects in, a room and connect these to the stories of Holyroodhouse.

What is interesting and a challenge of this site, is that the rooms and displays are limited by what is held within the Royal Collection. The Royal Collection Trust (RCT) does not borrow objects for display – their mission is to showcase what is in the collection only. This policy relates both to the palace itself, and the temporary exhibition space onsite, dubbed ‘The Queen’s Gallery’. They are also a self-funded organisation with paid staff only; there is currently no volunteer programme in place (this is unique for heritage sites).

This was the first typical day of the Open Palace Programme – where we are given the morning to get to know a site, and then are presented with a challenge or task to work on for the rest of the day. At the end of the session, we give a short presentation on our solutions/ideas in relation to the task set and feedback/discussion occurs with the site experts/staff.

Our first task in this case related to the opening up of Holyroodhouse further to the local Edinburgh community, through the construction of a physic garden (2019). This initiative is part of the Future Programme; a large initiative being rolled out at Holyroodhouse and Windsor Palace over the next few years (and includes much more than the physic garden – for more, follow the link here). This garden space is inspired by a physic garden that previously existed at Holyroodhouse, and would a free space for anyone to enjoy. It is hoped that this space will be a peaceful area for locals to visit and utilise. We were asked to come up with ideas for ways to engage with the public, through interpretation and programming. It was also suggested that the garden be linked with the house, to encourage local visitation to the palace.

We were split up into small groups to discuss our thoughts, come up with a plan, and report back to Sutherland and the other participants for feedback. This was a valuable experience as we were able to think through a live challenge that the staff at Holyroodhouse are genuinely facing, and receive feedback on our ideas in terms of the logistics of implementing such suggestions at this site. Tea and coffee were provided to help the ideas flow more easily!


OPP Participants enjoying tea and coffee whilst working through their task.

Suggestions included minimal but clear signage, plus an introductory panel; the development of a phone/tablet app would allow visitors to tailor the extent & depth of engagement they wish to have with the space. The app would also allow for information to be added/removed/altered as required without needing to alter signage. Laminated cards with information and a map of the garden was also suggested – this would be aimed at older audiences that would be unlikely to engage with the technology available. Garden talks and drawing sessions were also suggested as potential public programmes that would encourage the local Edinburgh population to come and visit the space, and learn more about the garden, the palace and the grounds.

The next day we returned to Holyroodhouse, however we focused on the Queen’s Gallery. This is the dedicated exhibition space on the grounds and it is located at the street entrance to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. We were given another talk by Deborah, senior curator, about the history of the Queen’s Gallery (open in 2002, in honours of the Queen’s silver jubilee), previous exhibitions held there, as well as the process of curating exhibitions for the Royal Collections Trust.

We were then very fortunate to receive an incredible lecture about the next exhibition to the at the Queen’s Gallery, ‘Canaletto and the Art of Venice’. This was given by Lucy, co-curator of this exhibition. The exhibition consists of paintings, as well as prints and drawings, solely from the Royal Collection Trust.  It focuses on Canaletto and the relationship with his patron, Consul Joseph Smith – a British man who lived his whole life in Venice. The Royal Collection possesses the largest collection of Canaletto works, after Consul Smith sold his collection to George III in the eighteenth century (he needed the money!).

Prior to the arrival of the exhibition in Edinburgh, this exhibition was showing in London. The Queen’s Gallery in London (connected to Buckingham Palace) is a much larger, palatial space. Thus the exhibition need to be adapted to fit the Edinburgh gallery, which is significantly smaller. We were privileged to get a sneak peak of the exhibition as it was being installed. This was a great opportunity to gain some insight into how major exhibitions such as this are physically put together. We met Rosie, co-curator of this exhibition with Lucy, as well as two members of the exhibition management team. They spoke to us about the logistics of installation and the Edinburgh exhibition programme overall (general 2-3 installations and de-installations per calendar year).

Exhibitions are planned years in advance, and as already mentioned, are derived entirely from items in the Royal Collection. This is important as it forces the team to showcase the collections as much as possible. Though it is a collection of great depth & breadth, it does impose unique challenges for the curatorial team. Where other galleries and museums are able to borrow items from other collections to enhance their exhibition and more comprehensively present a narrative, the Royal Collection cannot do this.

After our behind-the-scenes tour of the Canaletto exhibition, we met with two members of the learning team at Holyroodhouse, who look after the schools programme and the family offering. They discussed their roles at the palace, and then presented us with our afternoon task. This related to the 500 year anniversary of the death of Leonardo Da Vinci in 2019. The Royal Collection contains a large collection of Da Vinci drawings – these relate to all subjects of his interest including, anatomy, botany, cartography, engineering and art. 144 of these drawings will be exhibited at different galleries all around the UK during February to May 2019. They will then be exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery in London, before 80 drawings are brought to Edinburgh in November 2019.

The challenge for us was to assist the learning and programming team come up with ways to capitalise on the hype of the earlier exhibitions, despite the fact that the drawings arrive at Holyroodhouse so late in the year. This was an excellent discussion session, and we hope that some of the ideas floated by participants will be trialled and implemented. I think we will all be following this space keenly over 2019.



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