The Downton Abbey Exhibition at the Biltmore Estate was one of the most extraordinary events I’ve ever seen. I came to realize that Julian Fellowes is more than a genius author, he is an amazing historian as well. Each character and setting in the series was grounded in historical facts, with a unique view of the social values of the day. Many of the exhibits were interactive as well. Get ready for a long and picture heavy post. Starting off with a scale model of the castle, large pictorial exhibits gave interesting historical facts related about life in large homes of the period.
Beginning with the Earl of Grantham, the exhibit talked about the aristocracy, and the pressure of maintaining these huge estates, providing jobs for the working class, and the upheaval created by the first world war.
The character of Cora, being an American heiress married to an English noble, was the basis of this display. As English estates began to have trouble financially, the answer was marriage to a woman with money. The first of the “Dollar Princesses” from America, as these women were known, was Jeanette Jerome who married Lord Spencer Churchill in 1874. Their union produced Sir Winston Churchill, and her fortune saved the family estate from ruin. Another Dollar Princess was Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married Lord Spencer Churchill’s cousin, the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. She became a cousin of Sir Winston, and was his friend throughout her life. Interesting little tidbit connection to the Biltmore, isn’t it?
Around a corner, Mrs Patmore and Daisy were side by side.
Mrs Patmore’s exhibit contained a lesson on the life of a cook in a large household, producing meals for not only the aristocrats, but also the staff, three times a day every day of the year. Not a job for the faint of heart!! There were English cookbooks on display.
Daisy’s exhibit talked about education of the lower classes. Few could afford to go to school, as most had to work as soon as they were of an age where they could. Her storyline in the series is of the awakening of her curiosity, and finding teachers who could help her get a basic degree, equivalent to today’s GED.
Mr. Carson as the butler ran the household. The decline of great houses in the early part of the 20th century hit this working demographic hard, as it was the butler’s job to maintain standards, avoid scandal, and keep up traditions.
The housekeeper’s life was told on Mrs Hughes exhibit, how they spent their days, with a chatelaine in the case. In these exhibits and in others, you could pull out drawers or lift book covers to see more and learn more.
Artful images of the cast with only half their faces were scattered around the space. There were videos playing on large screens, like the one here on the right. Scenes from the series were shown. It wasn’t loud though. Over the speaker system, music from the series played, and the scenes dialogue sound levels were low enough that they didn’t compete with each other. Every character had their own section, with the historic relevance and social value lesson of that character.
In some exhibits, more videos were playing, illustrating the concepts on the exhibit. On these, you lifted an earpiece and held it to your ear to hear the audio. All of them were captioned, so you could just read the dialogue if you wanted. The life of a valet and a lady’s maid were detailed on Bates and Anna’s exhibits.
This was my favorite exhibit of all, the Dowager Countess Violet. Costumes from her character were displayed on two mannequins, with her desk between. Over the desk, a looping video of some of her most sarcastic and acerbic comments was running. We stood there for several minutes, laughing.
Here’s a closer view of the black mourning dress with the jet beaded collar. Can you see her comment on the screen? It says “You don’t have to see him if you don’t want to.”
Right after that, Violet says “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.”
Then, in an archway that looked like a hallway, up pops Mrs Hughes to welcome us to the servant’s areas. She looks right at us, and addresses us like she was really there. She mentions that she isn’t sure why we would want to see them, and we can go through, but she needs to go put the flowers away, so will leave us to wander on our own. Then she turned and walked off the screen. A moment later Mr Carson was there with much the same amazement, but he also said it was fine for us to wander around. Then he walked off the screen. We stood there and watched them do two more, each one different before it started over.
The servant’s area ‘below stairs’ was recreated in almost its entirety.
The kitchen was the set right out of the series, complete with Mrs Patmore’s egg tray, pots and pans, copper molds and mixing bowls.
The bell board was mounted at the end of the servant’s hall, with placards explaining how it was used. Before this innovation, footmen had to stand in the hallways or outside of living areas for hours at a time, just in case a lady or gentleman needed to summon a servant.
The set contained the dish hutch, a secretary, costumes of a valet and lady’s maid, and white stoneware dishes.
On the table was an authentic Frister and Rossmann sewing machine from the early 1900s. The machine was German made and sold to the British market. Due to shipping costs, it was less expensive to buy one of these machines than to import a Singer.
Next was a media room, with benches to sit and watch a montage of scenes from the show, projected onto three walls.
More of the Dowager Countess’s wit was shown here, too. The montage lasted about 10 minutes, and looped to the beginning again. You felt like you were sitting in the library, with all these people coming and going around you.
Next was Lady Mary’s bedroom, with the furniture and artwork, set dressed just like the show. Two mannequins showed some of the character’s clothing.
Moving forward, Lady Rose’s exhibit took on two of the more difficult social movements of the period. First with her dalliance with a black jazz singer, the problem of racial prejudice was addressed.
Then, with her marriage to Atticus, the issue of anti-Semitism was explored.
The dining room was set with an elaborate formal tablescape and place settings.
Each place had elegant china, four crystal glasses for wines and water, multiple forks and spoons, and a placecard with the menu. On the walls behind were multiple exhibits explaining the strict manners and etiquette required of a diner. I found it interesting that with each course, the hostess would ‘turn the table’, speaking to the person on her right for the first course, then with the second course, to the person on her left. All the women at the table would do the same, ensuring that no one was left out of conversation.
At the end of the exhibit was the dressing gong, and yes, you could ring it. So, of course I did. The last thing was another media wall where you could sit, and the characters addressed you. Mr Carson came out, complaining that someone had rung the gong and he was the only one supposed to do that. Other characters appeared to say goodbye, and please excuse them as they needed to dress for dinner.
That first exhibit took my friend and I about 2 hours to go through! There was so much to see and do. The second part of the Exhibition was costumes from the show, at a separate venue in Antler Village.
Wedding dresses were close enough to examine, and marvel at the stitching, embroidery and lace. Lady Mary’s gown on her marriage to Matthew was on the left.
A close look at the bottom of the train showed exquisite lace and beadwork detail.
Lady Edith’s gown for her wedding in the final season was featured.
A beautiful lace train with embroidery can be seen below the tulle veil.
Elsewhere, the iconic harem pants worn by Sybil in the first season were displayed. I remember focusing on the bottom cuffs while watching the show and totally missing the intricate embroidery work on the bodice.
Here is Lady Rose’s gown for presentation to the queen during her ‘season’.
More beaded gowns, remarkable in the detail and handwork.
Then a section of all hats. I would wear every one of these!!
And a final display of still more amazing beadwork and hand made detail.
If you can see this exhibit, do go. The Downton Abbey Exhibition is at the Biltmore Estate in the Amherst at Deerpark facility and Antler Village Legacy until April 7, 2020.
See more costumes on my post Dressing Downton from 2015, with media photos from the press pack. The Biltmore Estate has given up on trying to keep people from taking pictures, and now they only ask that you not use a flash. So much nicer to take my own photos. See companion books on the series, Highclere castle and the history on Amazon.
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