Touring her current talk on murder, Lucy Worsley – author, TV presenter and Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces – visits the Theatre Royal, Winchester with a grizzly package of scintillating information that helps transport startling notions from the past into our own time. Asked how she feels about such macabre subject matter, and what we might learn from it, Lucy explains that the 19th century saw a distinct rise in the fear of murder.
“People began to get obsessed with the idea that they might be murdered, and you see that in Victorian art, fiction and theatre. It’s a luxury, really, to be so free from care that you can afford to worry about something as inherently unlikely as being murdered. It goes along with neurosis, paranoia and anxiety and all the other things we ‘enjoy’ about life in the modern city!”
Lucy Worsley has become a bit of a household name to students studying at The University of Winchester. Breaking a series of boundaries as a female historian and presenter, she has brought certain aspects of social history (such as wardrobe and dance) to the forefront, legitimising her choice of topics in academic circles.
Lucy stresses that “Historic Royal Palaces is a charity. Every penny that visitors spend on their admission ticket goes towards our conservation and education work; we don’t get any money from the government or the Royal Family. So we have to make sure that the type of history we research will appeal to kids, families, tourists – a really wide range of people. I like the challenge of using things people can really relate to – like lovely dresses – to open up the whole history of society.”
I ask Lucy how she feels about the rise in social history and how it will affect her work and the focus of her research.
“Because I work for Historic Royal Palaces people think I might only be interested in kings and queens, but I’ve always been drawn to people who are a bit marginal to the main story: the servants, the mistresses, the bit-part players. What particularly interests me about kings and queens is the way that they tend to be the best-documented people of their day, and that you can really get under their skin as representative of Tudor, or Stuart, or Georgian people at large as well as heads of state.”
Accessibility is one of the core objective for Lucy’s unique choice of subject matter – from blogging about the cod-piece to presenting on the Royal Wardrobe. The diversity of media at her disposal, plus the balance between academic research and commercial output, is what makes her career unusual and inspiring to young historians, particularly as the rise in gender studies, social history, and accessibility are currently hotly debated. But for Lucy the emphasis has always been on curating:
“I knew from the age of 18 that I wanted to work in the field of historic buildings as a curator, and I dedicated myself to achieving that like an Exocet missile. The route I took was to work my way up through jobs as assistant curator and then as curator at English Heritage and Glasgow Museums, before joining Historic Royal Palaces ten years ago as Chief Curator.”
This grounding in academic research feeds both historic exhibitions and commercial projects. As she says, “Any exhibition, book or show arises out of research – the bread-and-butter day-to-day work of being a historian. By that I mean research into historic artefacts, research into an archive of documents or perhaps more active research like carrying out a re-creation or an investigation of a particular event or process. So whether commercial or academic it comes from the same place. For academic historians, it’s important that they publish their research in a peer-reviewed journal so that the world’s experts in that field can read it. For a public historian, like me, the aim is more to intrigue a larger number of people to go on to learn more.”
As a fellow historian it’s comforting to hear that the processes applied both commercially and academically are similar. Perhaps Lucy Worsley is paving a path for the rest of us to strive for such varied careers. Tonight, aptly enough on Friday the 13th of February, you can catch her at the Theatre Royal , Winchester where she’ll demonstrate that murder – or the idea of it – has formed trends throughout history. The evening [editor’s note: which is, not surprisingly, now sold out] exemplifies the juicy material that can inspire historians and general audiences alike.
Visit www.lucyworsley.com for more information.