This story is a review of an exhibit at the Culture Lab that ended April 22nd, 2019.
The newly opened Downton Abbey: The Exhibition based on the hit TV series that ran for 6 seasons and was the highest rated PBS series of all time, has taken over half of the former Macy’s space, transforming it into an elegant maze of a darkened hushed mansion. Inside the exhibit, tales of the show, family of dowagers, Ladys, gents, suitors, veterans and maids come to life with interactive exhibits that give a close up view of how exacting the show’s sets and costumes are.
It’s easy to see why the show won Emmys, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and why there is an upcoming feature film which started production in mid-September.
Walking into the lobby visitors are greeted by crisply dressed staff waiting to help your experience with a choice of self-guided tour or one with headphones that you control the audio at each numbered stop. Go through the big wooden doors and it’s another world as the ceiling has been lowered and covered in black. Soft lighting directs your view to a large video screen that gives a welcome to the world of Downton Abbey and the Crawley family.
I particularly enjoyed the life size video appearances from butler Mr. Carson and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, who interact with passers by using a combination of CGI (computer generated imagery) and actual footage from the shows. They usher you along and make clever remarks along the way while standing in doorways and hallways of the shows sets.
The individual stories of the characters Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Huge Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham) and Dame Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) are told along the way as their prominence in the story progresses. The Dowager Countess gets a whole video room devoted to her with her scene stealing wise cracks.
In one of the first rooms, there are lots of small objects from the show – vintage appliances, leather gloves, letters – that appear in glass cabinets or in drawers you can open. Alongside are detailed explanations of what these items are and how they fit into the real world and the world of the Downton Abbey.
As the Downton Abbey: The Exhibition progresses, items get larger – a desk, mannequins in hunting outfits – until you encounter full room sets. The butlers quarters and office are fascinating for the system of pulleys and bells used to summon staff. The kitchen set is a marvel of functionality as it details how as many as eight meals a day were prepared. Large wooden egg cradles that hold at least 10 dozen and bowls of vegetables line the long custom tables while shelves of pots and pans and cookware line the back walls. The room is lit by high ceilinged windows and discreet sconces.
Further along the way are never-before-seen set elements such as a bedroom and exclusive footage, the original furniture, silver flatware, and dishes, with more than 60 original costumes from Emmy nominated designer Anna Robbins who made six wedding dresses, red and black hunting garments, feathered hats, and elaborate sets of period jewelry.
One three-sided floor to ceiling video screen room is great fun to sit in the pew like benches and watch as sets and characters meld and reappear, outdoors becomes indoors, and characters speak key lines from the overall story.
The rooms filled with costumes are gorgeous as the 15-year period Downton Abbey span was a time of great social change in England, which needed to be reflected in the way women dressed. The silhouettes changed, the colors became brighter, embroidery more elaborate and the clothes tell a story of social change.
The storylines hinged on real-life events. The Crawleys / Granthams live (dramatically) through the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War I and the impact it had on their former privileged lives. Unions became a literal matter of life and death, the advent of communication technology and voting rights for women, the tepid acceptance of homosexuality, the constant tension between new money and old, upper class and lower, the changing roles of the aristocracy and their vanishing way of life.
I really liked the luxe intimacy of Lady Mary’s bedroom with mannequins sporting lacy lingerie and satin dressing gowns. Her huge bed covered in down comforters and tufted side chairs paint a picture of an entitled, glamorous life. The real showstopper is the formal dining room set for dinner for the whole family. Silver candelabras, multiple floral arrangements, oriental rugs, brocade curtains, gold framed paintings – this is how the upper class dined in style. You can almost hear the clinking of the glasses and the murmur of dinner conversation.
After a final CGI farewell from the butler and housekeeper, you exit through the gift shop filled with Downton memorabilia including hats, dinnerware, aprons, pillows, t-shirts and stuffed toys. This was a former retail space after all.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, an Elegant, Interactive Top Rated Exhibit