Downton Abbey Exhibition with Lessons in History

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.

Downton Exhibition at

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.

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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?

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Around a corner, Mrs Patmore and Daisy were side by side.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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The servant’s area ‘below stairs’ was recreated in almost its entirety.

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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.

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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.

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The set contained the dish hutch, a secretary, costumes of a valet and lady’s maid, and white stoneware dishes.

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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.

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Next was a media room, with benches to sit and watch a montage of scenes from the show, projected onto three walls.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Then, with her marriage to Atticus, the issue of anti-Semitism was explored.

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The dining room was set with an elaborate formal tablescape and place settings.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A close look at the bottom of the train showed exquisite lace and beadwork detail.

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Lady Edith’s gown for her wedding in the final season was featured.

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A beautiful lace train with embroidery can be seen below the tulle veil.

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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.

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Here is Lady Rose’s gown for presentation to the queen during her ‘season’.

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More beaded gowns, remarkable in the detail and handwork.

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Then a section of all hats.  I would wear every one of these!!

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And a final display of still more amazing beadwork and hand made detail.

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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.

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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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51 thoughts on “Downton Abbey Exhibition with Lessons in History

  1. Janice Snell

    Carole, thanks for sharing so many photos. What a spectacular exhibit. I saw a much smaller exhibit a few years ago and enjoyed high tea at that time.

  2. Rebecca Burch

    I would’ve thought I’d died & gone to heaven! I LOVED “Downton Abbey” & miss it sooo much! THANK YOU for sharing these amazing pictures (& history lesson) with us. As an aside, did you know that, in her day, Jenny Churchill was considered the most beautiful woman in the world (& no, it wasn’t just her checkbook that made her so beguiling). I’d seen a special about how they re-constructed or found all the clothes for the show & it was fascinating, tho the thought of having to actually wear all that “stuff” doesn’t appeal much to me. Wasn’t there a “Downton Abbey fabric line out several years ago? Once again, thank you for taking us on a wonderful trip down several memory lanes!

    1. Elizabeth Dennis

      Thank you for sharing so many beaut photos from this amazing exhibit.
      I live in Canada and would love to see this exhibit travel to other countries..

  3. Audrey Hind

    Thank you for sharing! Your photos are wonderful. Your write up so interesting. I enjoy reading of your many ventures. I also loved the series.

  4. What a great exhibit! We are actually in Season 6 of re-watching it. It’s amazing how much we had forgotten from watching it the first time. I’d love to see that exhibition in person. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jennifer Rauch

    Ohboy! So timely! Hubbs & I hadn’t watched ONE episode while it was on TV, so last week, when our awesome Sr. Center showed the movie for free, we decided too many people had raved about it & we needed to see what all the fuss was about! Now, I want to see what has been happening to all the characters, so borrowed Seasons 1 & 2 from our superb local library. . . some of the stuff we missed has now been explained, but keeping everyone straight, who is good/bad.. . I can see we’ll need to get the videos eventually so we can watch again and again. Then today to read your blog was the topper, & we’ll be heading to Asheville before April for sure to add to our experience! Good job, Carole!!

    1. Carole, thank you for this wonderful, wonderful post. I do so regret not seeing this exhibit when it was in Boston. At least now, I can see what I missed. 🙂

  6. Sylvia Anderson

    Although I am not a fan, I found your picture post, absolutely fascinating Carole. You always do such a detailed explanation, which makes it very easy to follow, and I would love a couple of those copper molds hanging in the kitchen, as well as the ‘ periwinkle blue’ ? dress, but it would need sleeves to hide all the saggy skin on my arms. lol Thanks for the history lesson.

  7. Sandra Clark

    Thank you for sharing the photos it’s the next best thing to actually going in person. I am one of those people who never watched it on TV and friends kept recommending that I would like it and I finally bought the 1st season about a year ago and I was hooked in fact we watched The entire series about 6 times through so far and saw the movie at the theater and have to Downton Abbey coffee cups. I love the way Julian fellows didn’t follow the usual Hollywood script which would have ruined the series for me.

  8. What a fascinating exhibit! I loved the show and would really enjoy seeing something like this about it. Do you know if it’s a traveling exhibit? Thanks for sharing, Carole!

  9. Rita C.

    I did not watch DA but I am a fan of this era of fashion. Thank you for such an informative post. I’d really love to see the exhibit!

  10. Carole, bless you for sharing all this detail ❤ I love Downton Abbey and now I absolutely MUST go see this exhibit. I had no idea it was so interactive and detailed!! I'm gonna call my girl friend to see if she wants to take a 'girls weekend' to go see it!! Thank YOU!!!

  11. Connie Bailey

    I loved this post! My friend and I are planning to see the exhibit in March. We are big Downton fans and loved all the details of the show. After reading this, I have a good idea what to expect. Thanks so much for sharing.

  12. Joan Sheppard

    I never saw the show but will do so now just for the costumes. I still wear hats when I can get away with it. Your story was wonderful and now I might just take the time to see it. Thanks for all the pictures!!!!! The handwork on these was amazing. I have a 1898 Eldridge Sewing Machine and it’s actually easier to sew by hand then to thread it. But it looks nice!
    Thanks again,

  13. What an amazing exhibit. I’m so happy you had a chance to see it first hand. Thank you too for sharing photos and insights. I love it all, especially all the clothing.

  14. stephzw

    Absolutely, I am a fan of Downton Abby. Thank you so much for your valued tour. It was great and very informative. The series is a must see for those that missed it. It has a lot of history, and why the nobility had such a problem in those days, What it doesn’t explain is why they had such problems. Can we imagine changing clothes 5 or 6 times a day, help was a necessity.

  15. I truly AM a Downton Abbey fan, and my 2 oldest daughters are even bigger fans than I!!! I am so glad you got to take your own photos…thank you for sharing. I did so much want to see the exhibit. My husband pretty much thinks one visit to the Biltmore is enough—“been there, done that”…lol. I’m working on him. After nearly 48 years of marriage I do have some influence.

  16. Dasha

    I have been fortunate enough to visit quite a few of the stately homes in England. Many of them have similar exhibits. Fascinating to see the gorgeous gowns and explore the customs of that era.

  17. We are big fans now, but only saw the last season on PBS, we ended up buying Seasons 1-5 and enjoy watching them periodically. The exhibit looks spectacular, and those dresses! Thanks so much for taking us along, Carole!

  18. Dee from Tennessee

    I cannot thank you enough for sharing these pics and the detailed info . I adore Downton Abbey . I am basically housebound except for Dr appts , and there is just no way we could make it to Asheville anymore . ( And to think , we would often go to Asheville on a whim so many Saturdays. ) I have a different life now , and bloggers like you are my ” connection ” to the world , so to speak . Thank you, thank you .

  19. I loved this post. I wanted to reblog it, but I hit snags with publishing it. I was able to share it on Facebook where I know a number of my friends will see it Thank you for this wonderfully detailed view of the exhibit.

  20. Bobbie Prairie

    Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share such a wonderful trip. This was very interesting and after watching the whole series, it almost feels like being right there in your beautiful photo’s.

  21. Quilted Pants

    I was a fan of Downton until about series 5 and then found some of the characters too unbelievable… But the exhibition pieces you’ve shared are interesting just as an excellent visual history lesson. And isn’t it great that there are still people with the skills to make those beautiful clothes?
    I have a confession too. All my life I have lived 20 miles from Highclere Castle and I’ve never visited! I think shall make a visit to the stately home a bucket-list trip for 2020!

  22. Tina

    Thank you so much for your post! I love Downton Abbey and I love Biltmore! I’ve only been once (when the Titanic exhibit was there) and loved it. Your post was so informative – makes me want to go back and watch the series again! I won’t get the chance to see this exhibit but I do hope to someday visit Biltmore at Christmas!

  23. thedarlingdogwood

    Looks like a fantastic exhibit! I haven’t seen the movie yet (waiting for my turn on the library DVD) but I loved the show. The attention to detail, both on the show and what looks like in this exhibit, is amazing!

  24. Pingback: Downton Abbey Exhibition – Mehrling Muse

  25. What an incredible exhibit, and so interactive!! Omg, I bet you could have stayed there for hours! So fascinating, and such a great way to demonstrate the culture and way of life during those times…thank you so much for sharing this with us, I loved every photo! The Biltmore is truly a special place and this experience must have been amazing!

  26. Bonnie Coleman

    Wonderful post! thank you for sharing with us! Love, love, love the costumes. I was into costuming for a while & the history part is always enlightening! thanks again!

  27. Liza Melnarik

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful experience. I am a huge Downton Abbey fan and would love to see the exhibit, but am unable to at this time. Thank you for letting me live vicariously through you!

  28. Wow that was so great to see your photos and discussion of the exhibit! So awesome for those of us who would have love to go but live in a different part of the country! That is just one of the greatest shows ever on television!

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