How did Richard III turn into a PR plaything?

Today’s latest hot Richard III news was yet another nail in a very thoroughly hammered coffin. The man has been dead for 528 years, after all

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It’s hard to put a precise date on the moment I realised that Richard III had jumped the shark, but if pushed, I guess I’d peg it to Friday, 12 July, 2013: the day the people who dug him up got angry with Damien Hirst for exploiting the dead.

It was in a letter to The Independent, funnily enough. Nearly a year after they had discovered Richard’s remains, and five months after the bones were confirmed as belonging to the controversial king, two University of Leicester academics wrote in to harrumph at the display of a 1981 photo of the original Young British Artist posing with the head of the corpse.

“We were really struck by the contrast between the care we took to control the presentation of Richard III’s bones and the apparent lack of concern for this individual,” archaeologist Matthew Beamish said, in a follow-up email. “Even though Richard III lived more than 500 years ago, we wouldn’t dream of publishing pictures of colleagues holding his skull and grinning. Or putting a silly hat on him.”

Well. Mr Beamish is right, of course, that treating the dead with dignity is of the utmost importance. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the University of Leicester as the world’s foremost proponents of such tact. Yesterday’s latest hot Richard III news, that another body had been found under the same famous car park as the king, and that this one was in TWO COFFINS, wasn’t exactly salacious, but it was also yet another nail in a very thoroughly hammered coffin. The man has been dead, after all, for 528 years.

Still, that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone, and a quick search of the university’s press office homepage reveals some absolute corkers. There’s the Richard III internship, and the recreation of Richard III’s last meal; there’s the plan for “Richard III: the next generation”, and the Richard III family open day; and a wide range of Richard III  T-shirts, mugs, badges, and notebooks.

There are the University of Leicester academics who painstakingly discovered that the odds of finding him had been 1,785 to 1 against. There’s the (bloody well-earned, you’d have to say) gold marketing award for best PR/advocacy campaign. And there’s the glorious non sequitur of the advertising slogan: “We led the search for Richard III. What could you discover?” Well, gosh, I don’t know. Henry VII? Has anyone hauled him out of the ground yet? Can I get dibs on that one? And will it help me get a 2:1 in modern languages?

You can’t blame the PR bods, tenacious as they are, for putting such drivel out into the world, I suppose; nor is their cause a sinister one. The embarrassment sits with those of us in the media, for eating it up with such enthusiasm.

As with all such campaigns, it’s a great pity. Something that briefly seemed opaquely exciting, an insight into the past that stood at delightful odds with its mundane location, has been transmuted into yet another marketing exercise. Richard might not have been put in a silly hat yet. But it’s surely only a matter of time.

Twitter: @archiebland

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