Kensington Palace opens after a $19 million makeover

A photograph of the late Princess Diana taken by Mario Testino in 1997 is displayed as members of the media work during a press preview at what used to be her official residence, Kensington Palace in London, March 20, 2012. AP Photo/Matt Dunham

A general view shows Kensington Palace, what used to be the official residence of the late Princess Diana, in London, March 20, 2012.
AP
(CBS/AP) It's the past home of Queen Victoria and Princess Diana, the future residence of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge - and, it's hoped, a stop on tourists' London itineraries.

Kensington Palace - part museum, part royal abode - is reopening to the public after a two-year, 12-million-pound ($19-million) makeover designed to give visitors a sense of what it is like to live in a centuries-old building that has witnessed both affairs of state and affairs of the heart.

Pictures: Kensington Palace restoration

Senior curator Joanna Marschner said she hopes the renovated building will shake up preconceptions about royal palaces, offering both the "big, glorious, golden rooms" that people expect, and a trove of more personal, revealing items - from Queen Victoria's baby shoes to Princess Diana's little black dress.

Tucked into Kensington Gardens, a public park in central London, Kensington Palace is a warm red-brick contrast to gray Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II's London home.

It was home to six British monarchs, including Victoria, who spent her childhood here, and now contains several royal "apartments" - actually Georgian houses, one of which William and Kate will move into next year.

It also has dozens of rooms that are open to the public. The public side of the palace reopens Monday, in time for a busy tourist season that includes the queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June and the summer Olympics.

Many visitors will head straight for a ground-floor display of dresses belonging to the palace's most famous recent occupant, Princess Diana. She lived here for 16 years after her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981. After her death in a Paris car crash in 1997, thousands of mourners came to leave flowers outside the palace gates.

Display cases hold garments including a black silk taffeta gown by Emanuel, a Versace cocktail dress and a fuchsia Catherine Walker gown, alongside sketches of the garments and photographs - all revealing, according to curator Deirdre Murphy, "Diana's evolving style and the important role fashion played in creating her public image."

Upstairs is an exhibition devoted to Victoria, the only British monarch before the current queen to reach 60 years on the throne.

It includes the room where she was born and the room where in 1837 she was informed, at age 18, that her uncle had died and she was queen.

Personal items range from her first pair of baby shoes to a pair of the royal stockings - along with Victoria's delighted description of how her husband, Prince Albert, helped her put them on.

Their marriage is traced from romantic start to tragic finish, with displays including Victoria's ivory silk wedding gown and the black dress she wore in mourning after Albert's death in 1861.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II pulled the ribbon last week during the official reopening of Kensington Palace.

"We have set out to awake the sleeping beauty of Kensington Palace," Charles Mackay, the chairman of the Historic Royal Palaces Board, told the U.K.'s Daily Mail. "It has been the most ambitious and complex project we have ever undertaken," Mackay said.

Kensington Palace will officially reopen to the public on March 26.

  • CBS News Staff

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