By Nancy McKeon
WE GROWNUP girls are far too jaded and, well, grownup to acknowledge crass broadcast-TV habits (Golden Bachelor? What Golden Bachelor?) But our younger selves? Didn’t we have Seinfeld, which gave us snark? And Friends, which gave us a healthy dose of heart and a nostalgia for just hanging out?
Speaking of nostalgia, did we not (many of us, anyway) swoon over the trappings of Downton Abbey? (See slideshow below.)
Derivatives of derivatives! There may be no better examples than two exhibitions catering to our love of our favorite TV shows, whose sets we enjoyed and perhaps imagined living in. So, if you have a way to get to one of a half-dozen cities soon, you might want to immerse yourself in the world of “The Friends Experience.” New York runs through the end of the year. Then there’s Miami and Salt Lake City and Amsterdam and Dublin and Melbourne. The exhibit has different dates in each city; go to each site for more info. Melbourne is the shortest run, through November 26, and Miami is the longest (in Aventura Mall, Aventura, Florida), through March 24, 2024),
As you might expect, the Friends set will allow you to sit down at Central Perk (Phoebe finally got the play on words!), hang out in Monica and Rachel’s kitchen (no food: Monica’s rules!), even pretend to “Pivot” to get the sofa up the stairs to Ross’s new apartment.
And if you can make your way to Chicago (or to be more precise, the Westfield Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie, Illinois), you may be delighted to learn that “Downton Abbey: The Exhibition” opens there on Friday, November 10. It will be there through the end of March 2024.
We have written about the Downton Abbey exhibition before. 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 organization, 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 remember 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 the late Queen Elizabeth II is said to have been 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 kitted out 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 in 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 (when the exhibition was in Asheville, North Carolina).
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 (the Whitby still offers afternoon tea).
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, November 10 through March 31, 2024, Westfield Old Orchard, 4905 Old Orchard Center, Skokie, Illinois 60077.