A major new visitor centre, exploring the life, death, and rediscovery of Richard III, has just opened on Leicester’s Grey Friars site. But what is to be seen? CA went along in advance of the grand opening.
On 26 July 2014, Leicester’s £4 million King Richard III Visitor Centre opened, the centrepiece of a series of local regeneration projects linked to the rediscovery of Richard III. Occupying the old Leicester Grammar School, the centre is just 100m from the cathedral where Richard’s remains are set to be reburied early next year (see box opposite), and also cleverly incorporates the car-park findspot of his Medieval grave.
A comprehensive exhibition, entitled ‘Dynasty, Death, and Discovery’, spreads over two storeys, with the ground floor providing the historical context to Richard’s life (the ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Death’ of the title). Alongside Medieval-style decor, slick audiovisual displays allow us to ‘meet’ key characters from the period, such as Richard’s ambitious father-in- law, Warwick the Kingmaker. Elsewhere, an interactive touchscreen highlights key achievements from Richard’s brief reign – from jury reform to his promotion of the English language at a time when Latin and Norman-French were still favoured for written works. But there is also an assessment of darker episodes, including the mysterious fate of the Princes in the Tower (the jury is still out), the untimely loss of Richard’s wife and son (challenging), and his death on Bosworth battlefield (brutal).
Upstairs, in rather more clinical surroundings, we jump forward 500 years in time to the ‘Discovery’ part of the story. Here we are given a 101 on the archaeological detective-work that led researchers to Richard’s remains, as well as on the scientific techniques that helped to confirm the identity of his skeleton – including DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating – while a video ‘flythrough’ shows the reconstructed layout of the friary in which he was buried. Centre-stage is a replica CT scanner that houses a life-sized model of Richard III’s skeleton. It allows visitors to examine his fatal battlewounds, and learn about the scoliosis that affected him in life. Nearby interpretive panels discuss this condition in light of how attitudes towards disabled leaders have changed since the Medieval period, and explore how perceptions of Richard’s character have evolved over the centuries.
But it is the centre’s location, overlooking the site where Richard’s remains were found, that brings us to the heart of this unparalleled story. Down a second flight of stairs, the exhibition culminates in a glass structure that extends over part of the former Leicester Social Services car park to create a specially built ‘contemplative space’. This contains the findspot itself, with the grave-cut preserved, still open with the original yellow marker pegs placed by the excavation team still in place, beneath a ventilated glass floor. It is flanked by bronze plaques engraved with a prayer from the Lambeth Book of Hours, thought to have been composed by Richard himself, and an epitaph traditionally held to have once adorned a now-lost monument erected by Henry VII over the grave of his defeated foe. This makes for a poignant reminder that, behind the dramatic events of the Wars of the Roses, and the equally remarkable story of the Grey Friars excavation, there lies a human being.
CA visited the centre while the finishing touches were still being made, and it looks set to offer a truly memorable experience. With upwards of 80,000 visitors per year anticipated by the team, Leicester’s new favourite adopted son is going to be one hardworking royal.
Visiting the new centre
For more information, and to book tickets, visit www.kriii.com.