As I mentioned in my last post, I recently visited the Downton Abbey Exhibition in NYC. There have been a few Downton Abbey exhibits before, including the “Dressing Downton” traveling show. This is separate from that and sponsored by Viking (the cruise line) as opposed to a museum.
My mom and I are big fans of the show (and the costumes!) and decided to make a day of it and go into NYC to see it. We booked tickets for 11am, and showed up half an hour early. There was a surprisingly long line (and most of the wait is outside) but we did get in on time. It’s worth noting that the line was much, much longer by the time we left, so it’s probably better to go early in the day.
Before getting into the details, I’ll give my rating, which is around a 4/10.
I’m kind of baffled by a lot of the decisions they made. I didn’t have huge expectations, so i’m not disappointed exactly…I just feel like they could have done SO much more, and a lot of the curation and layout decisions were bizarre. It was presented by Viking, rather than a museum, and I wonder if any of the people involved had prior experience in those roles.
It wasn’t bad exactly, it just could have been a lot better.
The exhibit is spread over three floors, each meant to mirror a floor of Downton Abbey.
The first floor was probably the most successful in my mind. It was small, but well presented. They had part of the set from the kitchen, along with quotes from the set designer (including an interesting tidbit about cutting down the legs of the work table since the actress who plays the cook was too short for the original one!).
They also had a replica of the main room, complete with the dining table, the wall of bells, and a replica Carson’s study.
In another hallway they had the garments Anna, the butlers, and the other lady’s maids wore.
I was impressed by all the costumes – the sewing work was almost more impressive on these pieces than the evening gowns since there was nothing to hide behind. The collars were all perfect, as were the hems and the little tucks and pleats. Everything was so carefully done it was hard to spot the stitches!
I love the different materials for these pieces too, they look like simple cotton but there were subtle opacity and texture changes between the fabrics used. They ended up having a lot of depth in person.
The text in this part of the exhibit was surprisingly interesting. A mix of things about life in service in 1910 through the 20s, how men and women’s roles differed, and some behind the scenes facts about the show and various roles staff had.
It would have been nice if the text was a little more extensive. Notes on the daily routine of a butler or lady’s maid would have been interesting.
The only downside to this floor is that it was small. I wish there had been more here – maybe an example of Anna’s shared bedroom? Something to give you an idea of the personal space they would have had available.
Plus, there wasn’t a lot of space around each display, which made it hard to see (thus the lack of photos). This was made worse by the fact it was crowded, and a lot of people were loitering while listening to the audio tour (which I understand, but was frustrating considering the lack of space).
The second floor was *way* more disjointed. You are greeted by a 5 minute film with clips from the show, then walk into a corridor with a half dozen evening gowns. This was my favorite part of the floor. The dresses, and all the costumes from this exhibit are impeccable. It was really interesting seeing them in person.
I was surprised to find that my favorite dresses (and the most elaborate) were actually 1920’s originals – I’m shocked these pieces didn’t disintegrate under the weight of the beading, but thrilled to see them in person!
I can’t remember the order, but there were three sets on the floor.
One of them was the dining table – fully set in all its glory. It was pretty to look at, but I wish there was a little more to it. Or more information about it. I found the surrounding writing on plaques about the space pretty dry. This was a problem I had with all the plaques on this floor.
(One of them literally said “The Crawley sisters have a tumultuous relationship that greatly effects all their lives”. I was hoping for more behind the scenes tidbits, or comparisons to other historical households. Not things you know from watching the first episode.)
In this space, one wall was taken up entirely by a picture of Carson and a paragraph about how often the Crawley’s gathered for meals and how expansive the cutlery sets from this period were.
I would have really liked this to be paired alongside a labeled set of cutlery, or even a picture of a table setting from above. Or a fact about how much a set of cutlery would cost. How long it would take to clean…how long the table took to set for the show, maybe some history about how the paintings featured in the dining space were supposed to relate to the characters.…really anything other than what they presented.
The second section shows Lady Granthams study, with two of her dresses. I believe these were her only wardrobe pieces in the exhibit. A bit disappointing since her costumes are some of the most elaborate in terms of design in texture.
The final set in the exhibit represents Mary’s bedroom. I apologize for the awful picture, this area was quite dark.
The bedroom set was large, and had two dress forms in the middle, both featuring delicate foundations. Again it was pretty, but couldn’t help but wishing for more. The set could have been more dynamic with mannequins primping at a vanity for a dinner, or showing the inside of Mary’s wardrobe.
The rest of this room was filled with what can only be described by the word kiosk, and this is my biggest peeve with the exhibit.
These things were tables, with giant pictures of characters coming up from the vertically. There would be writing next to the picture, on the table, and sometimes on lighted drawers that could pull out from the tables. The drawers also held letters or accessories from characters in the show.
But it was so confusing – this plethora of kiosks in the middle of a room were really difficult to navigate since there was no correct order.
They were also so hard to read with the crowds, since one person standing in front of it would block the writing on the table for everyone else. This is why museums put information on walls! I get that it is a (potentially) traveling exhibit but every location should have walls!
Most of the walls had pictures of the cast up, with the occasional poster and blurb. Again I found this information so bland – one touched on the changes in women’s corsets but didn’t have any visual reference. If they couldn’t get an original garment, having vintage ads would have been cool!
(and right next to the blurb about lingerie they had a kiosk about Mary’s child…such an odd layout!)
Unfortunately this layout continued for the bulk of the second floor. The largest area of the exhibition was filled with them. There was clearly a decision to focus on written information as opposed to memorabilia from the show.
There were ones for every character. Some had interesting bits to them, or were paired with costumes (they had Matthew’s military uniform – paired with a vintage belt and boots!). But a lot of the information were things you would know from the show. Any fresh information was hard to find since things were crowded, and with the lack of organization it was easy to walk past things. The arrangement of these kiosks seemed haphazard at best.
The final floor was for the costumes – the pieces were beautiful. Truly impeccable. Every pleat, gather, seam, and stitch was perfect. I loved seeing the textures and fabrics up close – they really were stunning. Something to aspire to a seamstress.
This was made more impressive to me by the fact they were working with chiffon, georgette, and crepe which are notoriously difficult to work with, much less tailor to that degree.
The downside to this was, once again, the layout. The costumes were all arranged in the center of the room, with some right next to the rope, and others 12 feet away in the center partially hidden by other pieces. I actually thought pieces were missing since they were placed so far from the ropes. It would have been nice if these were around the perimeter of the room, so each one could be seen in detail.
Again it was crowded and difficult to read the plaques. There were cases of hats parallel to the costumes, but they were difficult to get to with the large quantity of people.
I also feel like the variety of costumes was poor. There were only a couple a pieces from the earlier seasons, and it was heavily focused on Edith and Mary. Cora had some of my favorite wardrobe in the show and there were only three or four pieces of hers in the exhibit.
What was there was gorgeous and I’m glad I got to see it. I just wish the presentation did it justice.
Overall thoughts: It could have been so much better.
So much happened in Downton Abbey. More than a dozen outfits were featured in each episode, not to mention the accessories, storylines, and relationships. They had so much material to work with – and not just from the show! I’m sure there were scenes that were cut and behind the scenes stories. Not to mention the time period in general, a lot more 1915-20’s history could have been included.
With that in mind, I feel like there should have been more there. I would say they had 60 garments, maybe 50 pieces, of jewelry, and 20 hats. Plus the 6 sets. It was simultaneously underwhelming and felt too crowded for the space they had (mostly because of those stupid kiosks).
If you are used to museum quality exhibits and expecting something comparable, I think you’ll be really disappointed. The mannequins weren’t dynamic at all, there was no interaction in the “sets” and a huge lack of props. How cool would it have been if they had a vintage car and the related gear?
I understand that it is a traveling exhibit, so it can’t be too crazy, but I wish the quality of the exhibit felt close to the quality of the show.
Not to mention the fact that is was majorly overbooked. With the venue size and layout they chose, I think there needed to be half the amount of people in there.
And based on the lines, I think we experienced it during a slow time. They must have seriously underestimated the amount of time people would spend there, or they just oversold tickets.
If you love the costumes (especially from the later episodes) or are a super fan and want to see a look into the sets, it is probably worth going to. But I wouldn’t expect to learn anything new or feel like you are actually experiencing Downton Abbey.
Thanks for reading!