Arriving at Knole in the middle of the Inspired by Knole Project, Curator Frances Parton loves her work. Her role as Knole’s Project Curator found her building upon her previous career experience in museums and heritage buildings. She describes here how Knole is a very special place, offering discoveries at almost every turn.
Project Curator, Knole, 2017-2019
Interviewed by Veronica Walker-Smith
Knole offers discoveries all the time
Knole is that kind of place – it gives and it gives and it gives. And the more you look, the more there is and you think: we are scratching at the surface; we will never understand everything that there is here. There are discoveries all the time. And that is absolutely fantastic. So the major one in the Brown Gallery was that medieval doorway which we found behind the paneling. And then that leads into another part of the job. I find this job very, very interesting in a philosophical sense, which I haven’t had before: What are we trying to do here? Why are we doing it? What are we trying to tell the public? What are we telling the public about Knole? How much of the Project are we showing, and how much do we want to show? What era are we trying to present the showrooms as?
All of these are very, very sophisticated and kind of attenuated – it can start out as something quite small, but the philosophy behind it actually can be quite sophisticated, quite far-reaching. And often a philosophy that you’re very happy with, with one part of the building or one aspect of it, is difficult to keep consistent to another part of it. So if you’re talking about a wall, you actually do need to have the same philosophy as you’re talking about a vase. And actually to keep that consistency of approach, working with all kinds of different people, across all kinds of different scenarios is also something that’s difficult but also quite useful at the same time.
Frances describes the curatorial approach to re-decorating the atmospheric Retainers Gallery
The two extremes are: we do nothing or we re-paint the whole gallery. If we re-paint the whole gallery we are losing so much. There is historic graffiti all down these walls and that very fragile atmosphere will disappear. So what we want actually is a very gentle middle ground, so that what’s new is not painted to be old, but it is just softened and made a little bit more gentle, so that when you come up there, you get that ‘wow’ factor that the space really can give you. If you spent half an hour up there, and looked very carefully, you would see ‘oh yes actually, that’s a modern door, that’s a medieval door; that’s some older plaster, that’s probably a 1970s Trust intervention.’ But I don’t want that to be what first strikes you. And for that space we want it to be very evident that it has a long history of different interventions and we want to be honest about that. I don’t want a door jumping out at you as looking like Ikea pine.