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The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries -  A whole new perspective on Westminster Abbey

10 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

It is not every day that Westminster Abbey gets a brand new tower. Actually it is the first major addition to the church since 1745. Since the 13th century, the gothic cathedral has been a fixture of London’s skyline, and is recognised worldwide from televised coronations, weddings and funerals of the Royal family. The new galleries, which will open to the public on 11 June, will give visitors a view of the iconic venue that has literally never been seen before.

Located 16 meters above the Abbey floor, the galleries occupy the eastern triforium, an attic space that was presumably intended as chapels for the monks but was never used. Lying idle for centuries, the space has been transformed by McInnes Usher McKnight Architects into a spectacular new addition for the two million people who visit the Abbey every year.

Photo: Suzanne Frost

The new galleries are accessed via the aforementioned brand new tower in the shape of two rotated squares – a very “Westminster” shape – and the wonderfully sensitive design and use of material (by Ptolemy Dean, the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric and consultant architect) will have you believe, astonishingly, that it has always just been there. The tower is technically nothing more than a wheelchair sized lift shaft with a winding staircase around it. The steps are shallow and easy to walk up and what a walk it is!
 
At every level you gain a whole new view, getting up-close and personal with the ancient Abbey like never before. You can look straight into the eyes of the saints and royals in the stained glass windows, and marvel at amazing views of the Houses of Parliament from a whole new angle.

Photo: Suzanne Frost

The lift shaft is clad with 18 different types of stone that were unearthed during the restoration. The triforium itself can then be accessed via a small internal bridge, which joins the Abbey and its new tower. Two windows in the bridge are made of fragmented 13th century glass, which was found under the floor of the galleries when they started cleaning out the vault pockets. 4000 sacks of dust were lifted as the team sifted through 2 meters of dust in the unused chambers, unearthing historical treasures literally on a daily basis. 300 of the most important objects of the Abbey’s collection, including objects that couldn’t have been displayed before, are now on show in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery.

 Photo: Suzanne Frost

The display is separated into four themes: Building Westminster Abbey, which explores the Abbey from an architectural point of view, and stars an intricate wooden scale model from 1714-16, commissioned by Sir Christopher Wren.

Worship and Daily Life gives insight into the life of a working church displaying artefacts of worship through the ages. Westminster Abbey and the Monarchy maps the Abbeys close relationship with the Royals. Queen Mary’s coronation chair can be admired along with a small velvet stool that Queen Victoria used as a step up, as she was so tiny. Replica of the Royal Regalia used during coronations are displayed, and for a bit of more recent history, so is the marriage certificate of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, more lovingly known as “Kate and Wills”.

Photo: Suzanne Frost

The Abbey and National Memory explores the Abbey as a place of commemoration and remembrance. Alongside Kings and Queens, many notable Britons are buried within Westminster. A big part of the exhibition consists of funeral effigies, wooden and later wax figures of the deceased that were displayed during funeral ceremonies. These were aimed to give exact representations and were often modelled off the corpse, giving immensely valuable information to contemporary historians. These slightly creepy lifelike effigies are dressed in their original clothes, decked out in jewels and specially made wigs. The corset of Elizabeth I can be seen, as well as an effigy of Queen Mary I, which is missing the head, but shows the swollen belly of her phantom pregnancy.

Photo: Suzanne Frost
 
The gallery is also worth visiting for the space itself, with wooden beams, introduced by Sir Christopher Wren, still in place and decorated with carvings of human and animal heads, some in pristine condition, preserved by centuries of dust. The most breathtaking thing of all, however, is probably to lean over and take in the spectacular view of the inside of Westminster Abbey, 16 meters below. It’s a view you may be familiar with: TV cameras have always been placed up high in the triforium to film Royal events. Now that privileged view is yours.
 
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Gallery at Westminster Abbey is open to the public from 11 June. Room is limited so admission is by timed ticket, which is bought in combination with an Abbey entry ticket.
 
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