Re-Visiting Dunham Massey

A little while ago, when we were at our most northern Re-enactment event, me, mum and Kerry decided to pop over to Dunham Massey. I had already been but mum and Kerry wanted to visit while it was still displayed as Stamford Military Hospital.

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If you have been following my blog for a little while you will know what I thought of my last visit. If you haven’t then here are the links to the two post about it:

Post One & Post Two.

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I had a lot of opinions about the visit, as is deserving of such a huge and ambitious project. I had heard a lot of great things about the WWI theme and unfortunately was a little disappointed in my visit. I didn’t feel I saw the best that was on offer, missing the very emotional vignettes performed by the actors, and finding the exhibition petered out part way round the house. It was a very good example of how important managing expectations can be, give something a lot to live up to and it will be hard pushed to achieve.

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However the Stamford Military Hospital theme is now in its second year, tweaks have been made, I knew what to expect and I really enjoyed my visit second time around.

The main change I though was a great improvement was the way they now end the WWI theme. Before it was confusing where the WWI story ended and the ‘Treasures’ exhibition began.

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The beautiful bed is in a room just off the Gallery, which starts the treasures exhibition, however there is still on room left talking about what happened to the patients and staff of the hospital. This is still the case, but now the live of the people on your entry ticket are concluded in the Gallery, giving it a more final feel.

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At the end of the gallery there are stack of crates, bags and photo frames. Here you are told what happened to all the people on your entry ticket, and it is a really nicely displayed pieces of interpretation. I likes this touch a lot, it was in-keeping with the theme and provided enough information that you felt satisfied.

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They have also removed the nods to the war from the bedrooms further along the visitor route. It’s only a small thing but helps visitors know where they are, and I like things neat and tidy so having a more definitive end appeals to me.

I understood the stories a lot more second time around. I tend to visit a property, then read the guide-book at home (usually as I’m writing the blog post). This means I often understand the property more after I have left than while I am there. Writing the first posts about Dunham meant I got more of a feel for the people talked about in the property, so I had more of a vested interest going around the second time.

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Phase two of the project also included new scenes that the actors would be acting out during the second year. We caught two scenes downstairs, in the ward and the Great Hall. They were quite entertaining but sad at the same time, featuring a well-to-do visitor who lacked understanding about the harsh realities of the war, as so many not directly involved would have done.

Just as we were about to leave the Great Gallery, upstairs, a soldier walked past us, drawing me back in. I got to see a scene between nurse Lady Jane Grey and her brother Rodger, the soldier. It made more sense to me than it would have done, had I not know the history and situations of the two people, but it still drew everyone in. It was a lovely scene and I was really pleased to have seen something a bit more emotive and personal.

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I was also aware of what to expect, so not disappointed when we left WWI and entered the ‘Treasures’ exhibition. This exhibition was set up to appease visitors who might be put out that a lot of the collection has been moved to re-instate the hospital, and I think it’s a wonderful idea.

There are some very lovely pieces on display in this exhibition, and even thought these rooms don’t feel like you’re in a Trust property, they are really interesting.

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The one thing I really did not like however was the new sculpture in the garden, commissioned to remember the patients treated at Stamford Military Hospital. They have chosen to do this with . . . concrete cubes. Visible from the Great Gallery the blocks all have numbers on, representing each of the nearly 300 men treated here. I’m not a huge fan of modern art and while I think it is lovely they have created a permanent memorial couldn’t they have chosen something a bit prettier? Or even just more in keeping with the surroundings?

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Another new feature are more characters, but ones that visitors can interact with. The actors portraying actual people in the house move like ghosts, only talking to one another. However in the kitchens we met two maids, knitting for the war effort, who were quite happy to talk to us, in character. The more characters in a property the better in my opinion.

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Dunham have decided to stick to their original plan and only keep the ‘Sanctuary’ WWI theme for two years, meaning you only have until November this year to see it. Personally I think this is madness, they have successfully enhanced the theme for its second year and I feel they are missing an opportunity by not building on it further, especially as it took so much time and money to achieve. Stamford Military Hospital wasn’t actually established until 1917 and it seems crazy not to have the theme still running for its own centenary, but I suppose there must be reasons for it and those decisions are way above my pay grade.

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I recommend anyone with an interest in Military History or the First World War to make a real effort to see Stamford Military Hospital before it disappears. It is a fascinating, in-depth and unique look into the past, not to be missed.

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Dunham Massey – Part Two

Hello again. As I was getting towards the end of writing my last post I realised how long it had turned out so I decided to try and avoid boring anyone too much I would split it into two parts. So here is the second part of my thoughts on my recent trip to Dunham Massey. Really long post are just what happens I guess when you have so much to say about something!

The last part of the tour downstairs was the ‘Operating Theater’ at the bottom of the main stairs. It was a really interesting scene, where surgical suits that seemed to be filled with talking ghosts stood, and oral histories played. The ‘ghosts’ told us about an operation that had taken place in the very spot, and featured a recording from Lady Jane Grey herself. This element had been done in such an interesting way, I found it fascinating! There was just enough to keep your attention, without too much to make it what could have been a really gruesome element (which I was very pleased about as I have been known to faint at the sight of blood!).

The operating theater at the bottom of the stairs

The operating theater at the bottom of the stairs

Unfortunately for me as soon as I got upstairs the absorbing atmosphere from the ground floor was lost. The two rooms had very little to indicate whether we were still supposed to be in WWI. The background noises ceased and it all suddenly felt very flat. I had hoped to see more vignettes upstairs as well but we didn’t see any more of these. Once we got into the Gallery I felt the atmosphere return a bit more but only briefly, and there our visit to the hospital was over and we moved into an exhibition of the collection for the rest of the visit. Because I had been expecting more of the safe to continue upstairs I was a bit confused, which seems unfair considering how well the ground floor had been done!

The gallery upstairs

The Gallery upstairs

The exhibition that followed on after the hospital story had ended was very interesting. It was called ‘Treasures from the Collection’ and had been though up to appease any visitors who had come the Dunham to see a stately home and all it’s fine furnishings. Admittedly I didn’t get this until it was explained to be, but the information and items on display were really interesting and beautiful.

The Treasures Exhibition

The Treasures Exhibition

The library was beautiful. Libraries full of old books really are some of the most amazing locations and the one at Dunham has shelves that tower above your head filled with hundreds of matching leather-bound books. Dunham also has a huge kitchen complex which was full of shiny copper, I do love seeing rows of gleaming copper!

In the Kitchens

In the Kitchens

Over all I had a really nice day at Dunham, the downstairs rooms had been really well interpreted and it made for a very absorbing visit. It was just a same that the upstairs rooms did not have the same depth which sort of spoiled the visit, unfortunately. I am hopefully going back to Dunham again soon, and am looking forward to it, I will make sure to spend some more time in the downstairs rooms fully exploring them, especially as I already know what is upstairs.

The Library

The Library

I would recommend anyone with an interest in WWI history to visit Sanctuary as it has been really well done, but I would also tell people in advance about the difference in the atmospheres between the floors. I think I rushed my first visit as I was too curious to see what else there was to see, so I will take my time and absorb it all if I go again, and try to follow the individual stories throughout the tour more closely.

It will be interesting to see what the property choose to do after Sanctuary is over. It has been billed as lasting for two years and I’m not sure if a property can just go back after something so completely different, but also, what can you do as a follow up act. Properties rarely have several stories as powerful as this, or the timing on a national scale that brings the story into a much bigger picture, let alone the time and money to do this every two years. Part of me wonders if this was too much work for only two years, so maybe they will extend Sanctuary until the end of the centenary. I would be thinking about it but I suppose it depends if their visitor numbers trail off next season after all their press coverage has died down.

More interpretation in the Bagdad Ward

More interpretation in the Bagdad Ward

Talking to the team behind the project made me confident that if Hardwick had the same funding we could do something just as trans-formative and powerful. The thing the manager at Dunham said was that he felt he had the right team and the right timing to undertake such an extreme project. I feel like we have such a good team at Hardwick now that we could achieve anything we set our minds too given the right resources! Although with all the projects we’ve got in the pipeline maybe not for a good few years!

Dunham Massey is Stamford Military Hospital

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Dunham Massey with a National Trust group. Dunham has done something pretty amazing and transformed what was a very standard Trust Stately Home into the military Hospital it actually was during the First World War. I had read quite a bit about ‘Sanctuary’ as the theme is called so when my line manager asked if I wanted to go and see it I jumped at the chance!

Dunham Massey

Dunham Massey

The best bit about going to see it with work (other than getting to go on a jolly and it being called ‘work’) was that after we had been round the house we had the opportunity to talk to the team behind sanctuary. It was really inspiring to see what could be done with a good idea, a fascinating story, and a lot of money!

The new Visitor Reception Building

The new Visitor Reception Building

During the First World War Dunham Massey, like many stately homes, was turned into a military hospital to help ease the burden that the War had placed on the under-prepared British health care system. At the beginning of the war Britain had only 7000 hospital bed, by the end there were 364000 thanks to Dunham Massey and other places like it.

From 1917, when it opened as a hospital, Dunham Massey was known as Stamford Military Hospital. The hospital was established and run by The Countess of Stamford, Penelope Grey. The ground floor became the hospital but the upper floors remained the family home, where all the furniture that had been in the rooms below rooms was also stored for the duration of the war.

The Bagdad Ward

The Bagdad Ward

The Countess took a personal interest in all the soldiers under her roof, and her daughter Lady Jane Grey became a VAD Nurse working at the hospital, and bringing great comfort to the wounded soldiers. Penelope’s son, Roger Grey, the 10th Earl of Stamford, was based in London for most of the war and used his position to help get supplies the hospital needed.

The interpretation of Dunham’s amazing story has been really well done, with the ‘Bagdad Ward’ in the Saloon being the highlight of the tour in my opinion. The room has been recreated according to contemporary photographs of the hospital. There are snippets of information all over the room, so many that you have to really explore the space to find it all.

Some of the hidden interpretation

Some of the hidden interpretation

The Visitor Reception Building had several panels of information about Dunham’s role in the First World War, and background information about the major changes that the national hospital system underwent during the War. There was also an introductory exhibition in one of the first rooms of the house, giving basic information about life in the Trenches and some of the injuries and illnesses that could send fighting men ‘back to Blighty’.

The introductory information

The introductory information

We were the first people in that day (eager beavers us Trust lot) so we have a chance to be in the room before the actors came in. There are sound effects of breathing, whistling, ringing phones and even music in the downstairs rooms which help create the atmosphere of the place. Being in that space was really absorbing. When the actors came in the room at first I wasn’t sure what to do. We had already been warned that they would not interact with us (thank goodness, audience participation terrifies me!) and I wanted to read all the information, which meant venturing near one of the actors who was lying in a bed.

The actor portraying Lady Jane Grey

The actor portraying Lady Jane Grey

However once I got past the slight awkwardness and just carried on looking it was fine, and then the actors started one of their vignettes. There are several different scripts and I have heard really good things about them. The two I saw were very good, you had to have a bit of background knowledge to fully understand the meaning of the conversation the two soldiers were having. If you did have this knowledge it was very though provoking.

Actors doing a scene

Actors doing a scene

However after hearing so many good things about how powerful and moving the acting was I came out of the property a little disappointed, knowing that there were elements I had not seen. We even went in the first couple of rooms again at the end of the day to try to catch some more acting, but again did not see the really emotive scenes we had heard about. I guess this is where ‘managing expectations’ really becomes important. I was a little bitter that Sanctuary was getting so much press but have now decided maybe it’s not a bad thing Hardwick it not in the public focus in such a big way. It is a lot to live up to, especially when the icing on the cake is something like Sanctuary’s acting, where it is very time dependent on the experience you will get.

This has turned into a really long post so I will leave it there for now and talk more about my visit to Dunham in the next post. Thanks for reading!