In the Middle Ages, true believers went gaga over relics — physical items that were either a holy person’s body part or closely associated with a saint. All over Europe the major cathedrals claimed to display Jesus’ foreskin, the Virgin’s milk, a splinter from the cross, St. Peter’s toe, St. Anthony’s jaw and other items that seem bizarre and/or fabricated. And yet for centuries these relics were the object of veneration that strengthened the faith of millions.
We do it differently in 21st Century America. Our relics are associated with TV shows. A couple of years ago the Museum of the Moving Image had a major Mad Men exhibition, complete with the show’s memorabilia (Don Draper’s fedora, Peggy Olsen’s sunglasses, etc.). And now “Downtown Abbey” is getting the relic treatment with a full-blown exhibition in a former mansion in midtown Manhattan.
For anyone thinking of attending here is the tourist information: the exhibition is housed in a three-story, very unassuming, building at 57th and Broadway. The hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and you are encouraged to buy them online for a specific time.
My office is caddy-corner to the exhibition (see view below from my floor), which I’ve walked past many times since it opened, completely unaware that the exhibition was even there, so it doesn’t exactly make a big splash on 57th Street. The proximity worked for me, though, because the website was malfunctioning the day I wanted to go so I just walked over at 10:00 a.m. and waltzed in — definitely the best time to visit since I had the space largely to myself.
The view from my workspace
The exhibition is a multi-media mix of video tours by Mr. Carson, a display of 50 costumes (mostly dresses but also suits and working uniforms), six or seven actual sets from the series, and lots and lots of props. All this is interspersed with clips from the show and piped-in theme music.
The exhibit has a quasi-museum feel to it, with written text on the walls explaining cultural trends from the early Twentieth Century and putting the fashions into historical context. It takes a minute to remember that what we are looking at is still just a set for a TV show and costumes that were created a few years ago — not actual artifacts like you’d find at an actual museum.
The layout of the exhibit loosely follows the layout of a grand house like Downton: the exhibits related to the servants are downstairs and the top two floors are reserved for the Crawley family’s displays.
The downstairs sets include Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, the servants’ dining room and Mr. Carson’s study. And of course the servant’s costumes, which are even more monochromatic than they appeared on TV.
I don’t know who produced the text that elaborated on the lives of the servants but it’s in keeping with Julian Fellowes’ apparent belief that these grand houses were good for society. We learn, for example, that the houses provided employment and upward mobility for the ambitious children of the local farmers and that most of the servant girls married themselves off and left service by their late 20’s. Those without spouses could continue to rise within the hierarchy in the house and become lady’s maids and housekeepers. There was a similar path for the men as well. And who knows, this socio-economic interpretation might even be true, although the exhibit doesn’t dwell on the relentless work that being a maid entailed.
The second floor of the exhibit has a lot more color and glamour, showing the Crawleys’ dining room and Mary’s bedroom (a place of great drama, given that Mr. Pamuk expired in that bed and Anna’s baby came into the world in the same spot.) The dining room is the most spectacular set in the exhibit, with glorious silver and crystal. There’s also a helpful account of how men had to wear white tie for every dinner, until the 1920s, when standards relaxed and they could get by with black tie. How exhausting to be always playing a part!
Mary’s bedroom, complete with her evening robe and undergarments
The second floor continues the theme of Downton-as-benefactor. We have a clip of Robert Crawley exclaiming that if Downton doesn’t provide hundreds of jobs it has no point. So Downton does not exist to glorify one family and keep the lower classes in place — no, it’s a giant jobs program Why Lord Grantham is FDR and Downton is the WPA!
Like the TV show itself, the Downton exhibit wants to have it both ways — it wants to be historically accurate and also demonstrate that the characters are more or less just like us. For example, there’s text describing how stiff and formal the nightly dinner is supposed to be — it sounds daunting and not much fun. However, this is accompanied by videos of the Crawleys breaking all the rules — laughing, yelling at each other, and not being the least bit stuffy.
In fact, the character who should be the stuffiest — the Dowager Countess — is the liveliest of all and a softy underneath too. Violet Crawley has a whole area to herself, the highlight of which is a video of her dozen or so wittiest quips. But the exhibit goes to great pains to show that she was a fierce protector of her granddaughters and a breaker of tradition when it suited her.
The third floor has no sets from the show — just a lot of dresses, with a special emphasis on wedding dresses. This section reminds me of the Smithsonian, where the First Ladies’ inauguration gowns are on display. And it was at this point where I looked around and noticed that about 75 percent of the people at the exhibit were women of a certain age. Most of the rest were their husbands or male companions. All white, of course. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I just noted it as an interesting phenomenon.
It took me about an hour to complete the exhibit. I later read a review by someone who said she spent two and a half hours there. I can’t imagine it. She must have looked at every sequin.
In the end I was glad I attended the exhibition if only to satisfy my curiosity. Stepping into Downton World is like settling into a warm bath or drinking a glass of wine on the couch — its slightly soporific and tends to retard your cognitive ability, even as you get a feel-good tingle. It’s a soft-edges world, where everything appears to be in balance and no permanent harm can come to anyone (unless you’re an actor who wants off the show, in which case you come to a gruesome end.)
So if you’e in NYC, by all means stop by to see it. But don’t make a special trip.
Some other thoughts:
- I’ve written extensively about Downton. You can read my recaps here: (Gary’s Downton pieces.)
- The exhibition was originally slated to run through the end of January but the run has been extended through April.
- The exhibition building only has “up” elevators so if you can’t walk down stairs (and these are long staircases), you better give it a pass. It’s hard to believe it is’t handicapped-accessible so if this is an issue call ahead to make sure.
- The exhibition occurs in a building (218 West 57th Street) that used to house Lee’s Art Supplies, a pretty well-known art store. The building has been sitting empty waiting for a Nordstrom’s to open across the street, and which point the owners plan to create a high-end retail space. Higher-end than an art supply store, at least. So this exhibition is a real gift to them, providing rental income when it might otherwise be empty. For more detail on the property, check it out here.