The marvelous Downton Abbey exhibit has moved on, to Boston, where it is on view through September 29, 2019. After that it travels to Biltmore, the Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville, North Carolina, from November 8, 2019, through April 7, 2020. And if you cannot make it to either of those places, take heart: The Downton Abbey movie opens on September 20, 2019,
This review is based on the exhibit’s 2017 installation in New York and has been revised.
I COULD QUALIFY to be the Cook at Downton Abbey! I learned this by taking the interactive multiple-choice quiz at “Downton Abbey: The Exhibition,” while it was on display in New York, in 2017.
The quiz, an “application for employment,” seemed to be assessing my sense of oganization, my loyalty, my ability to press forward in the face of interruption or bad decisions by others. Nowhere did it ask me if I could cook, something to think about when watching a rerun of Mrs. Patmore doing battle with the biscuit dough.
The woman ahead of me was told she qualified as a Lady’s Maid; another woman (because, yes, the quiz asks your sex) was tapped as a Housemaid. I guess all the above-stairs positions were taken, what with nepotism and all.
The exhibit, produced by NBCUniversal International Studios and a list of sponsors and contributors that takes up an entire page in the Souvenir Programme, is a well-calibrated mixture of sights and sounds from the show, which is apparently the highest-rated PBS “Masterpiece” drama series ever, seen by some 120 million people around the world. Even Queen Elizabeth II is said to be an eagle-eyed viewer, pointing out the occasional anachronism (she noted a WWI soldier wearing medals awarded in WWII).
Most of the visitors to this celebration of a lost, or discarded, way of life, have been happily steeped in the minutiae of Downton Abbey for its six seasons, where life “in service” was shown to be as appealing as the life of those served. This is a chance to walk through the hallowed kitchen and butler’s pantry and other below-stairs areas, opening the occasional drawer, reading the odd book on a table, absorbing the information on wall plaques. Although we visitors get to walk beyond the green baize door separating the family’s living areas from the servants’, the upstairs rooms aren’t quite as well represented because they were real, shot on location at Highclere Castle, which played the role of Downton Abbey.
We were able to walk through a portrait-laden grand dining room. Then we sat on benches in Lord Grantham’s library, with its projected image of book-lined walls, only to watch as the walls crumbled to ruins, replaced by scenes of wretched trench warfare. The ebb and flow of images was as dazzling as it was sobering.
Commercial exhibitions such as this one are more like World’s Fair installations than proper museum exhibits. But I’ve been to the French fry museum (in Bruges, Belgium), a chocolate museum (Barcelona), the pasta museum (Rome) and others, and I find that the wall plaques and artifacts in these displays are more detailed and give more historical and social context than those in many a Smithsonian exhibit.
And the Smithsonian doesn’t invite me to “upgrade” my experience by buying a night’s lodging at the hotel on the Biltmore grounds.
Or, in New York back in 2017, my friends and I were invited to indulge in an Afternoon Tea Package at the nearby Whitby Hotel for $45 per person, offered through January 31, 2018.
“Downton Abbey: The Exhibit” began its life in Singapore and will have a limited run in New York before traveling.
After the “dressing gong” was rung (by three selfie-taking Korean schoolgirls), we visitors faced the final Downton display, a feel-good video appearance by Lord and Lady Grantham, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. What would the family do without the staff? Lady Mary asked, not entirely rhetorically. To which Mr. Carson replied, What would the staff do without the family?
See? There once was a proper social order, and the world has been going to hell every since it got blown up. What’s left to us are shows such as Downton Abbey that allow us to peer longingly into another age. Never mind that most of us would be staring up at those drawing rooms and libraries from below-stairs.
“Downton Abbey: The Exhibition,” The Castle at Park Plaza, 130 Columbus Avenue, Boston. Timed tickets are $35 for adults, $33 for seniors. Through September 29, 2019.
From November 8, 2019, through April 7, 2020, at Biltmore, Asheville, North Carolina. Timed tickets are $69 for adults; ticket includes entry to Biltmore House and Gardens.
For more information, call 866-811-4111.