Seeing the Unseen at Westminster Abbey

Although originally and still primarily an important place of worship, Westminster Abbey now also occupies the roles of tourist attraction and historical landmark. Visiting the church as part of our Master’s programme was a fascinating experience, giving us an opportunity to observe the delicate and difficult balances that must be maintained. Our field trip took us behind the scenes at the Abbey, where we could gain a new perspectives on those multiple roles that the building serves.

View of the Library. Copyright Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey

Entering through the cloisters, we were shown to the Library and Muniment Room, one of the oldest parts of the Abbey, where the Keeper of the Muniments explored the history of the building and its evolution from a small Benedictine monastery to the site of royal coronations and one of the most visited attractions in the world. We saw some of the key illuminated manuscripts in the collection and the 13th century Muniment Room itself, with its floor tiles, wall paintings and almost thousand-year old oak chests. By the model for the new tower and museum (currently under construction in the Triforium area), we were able to discuss the curatorial issues involved in the project with both the Head of Collections and the Keeper of the Muniments. This ambitious building project, the first major intervention in the fabric of the building in over two centuries, underlines the fact that, although Westminster Abbey is now over a thousand years old, it is not fossilised but a living, changing space that has to respond to the demands of today as well as the preservation of the past.

During our time in the conservation studio, with the Abbey’s Head of Conservation, we learnt about the practices employed to prepare artefacts for display in the new museum, and the multitude of decisions which must be made during such curatorial projects. One decision involved conserving several polychrome wooden effigies in their current states, by ensuring their paintwork remains as intact as possible, rather than making more dramatic interventions, such as attempting to totally restore them with extensive repainting or replacement of missing sections.

Shrine of St Edward with Henry III. Copyright Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey

We ended our visit at the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, the monarch without whom Westminster Abbey would likely never have been more than a small monastery. We were able to get up close to tombs and effigies of kings and queens of Britain, and the shrine itself, a fascinating construction in marble and wood, with Cosmati work inlays. Around us preparations for a small service were beginning, demonstrating that the building’s role as tourist attraction and historical landmark work harmoniously together with the religious function it continues to provide today.

Yasmin Isabella Horoz Garner, Fine and Decorative Art, Renaissance to Modern 2016–2017 MLitt Student