LONDON—When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 his body embarked on a two-week tour of the union. Hundreds of thousands of mourners in five states lined up to pay their final respects before the president’s open-casket.
A 21st century version of that procession has just begun in London. There is no open-casket but in the exhibition My Name Is Prince at The O2 center in East London, Prince is memorialized by scores of tiny mannequins decked out in some of the exquisite and elaborate costumes that helped transform the Minnesota musician into one of the most recognizable men on the planet.
In the hours after Prince died at home in his sprawling Paisley Park compound last year, thousands of fans gathered outside to leave purple balloons, flowers and messages that were inserted into the chain-link perimeter fence.
By the end of the year, official tours of the property had begun. “We know how much it means to people who make it to Paisley Park; it’s a moment of closure; a way of saying goodbye; a way of remembering; a way of being closer to Prince,” Angie Marchese, the director of archives at Paisley Park, told The Daily Beast. “This exhibit is going to serve that for people who can't make it there.”
Marchese has curated a touring exhibition, under the direction of Prince’s family, that recaptures the surreal magic of Paisley Park and the secretive genius who built it. Hundreds of artefacts gathered from the compound are being displayed for the first time, alongside an audio-visual tour through the sexy funk/synth/guitar revolution that came to be known as the Minneapolis Sound.
At the culmination of this loving memorial, fans are invited to add their own messages and memories to a recreation of the fence outside Paisley Park.
At the end of the exhibition’s run—before it embarks on a world tour—those messages will be shipped back to the Midwest and take their place among the bulging archives inside Prince’s former home.
London has seen an explosion of pop icon exhibitions in the last decade, popularized by the Victoria and Albert Museum who put on shows exploring the fashion and cultural impact of Kylie Minogue and then David Bowie.
The Bowie show, which opened in 2013, shattered museum attendance records and alerted musicians to a lucrative new opportunity for connecting with fans (and their wallets).
Those Bowie and Minogue shows were designed for fans of the musicians but they were put together with analysis and curatorial vigor.
More recent London blockbusters, including the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd shows were designed and curated independently by the bands or their closest associates—they were official, authorized histories.
Compared to this Prince retrospective—those rock ‘n’ roll shows felt like warts-and-all exposés. My Name Is Prince is the purest purple puffery.
“This is not meant to be overly critical we’re not analyzing his career, we’re sharing his story,” said Marchese. “It really is more about being true to who Prince was as an artist and as a person and sharing that with the visitors.
“The family and the estate are very much involved in everything we do—when we first started throwing ideas out and concepts they had approval over all artwork, drawings. If they wanted anything specific included in the exhibit we made contingencies to make that happen.”
Tens of thousands of Prince fans will no doubt delight in this tribute to one of the most influential musicians of the last century.
As you enter the exhibition space you are told: “His music became the soundtrack of a generation. In short Prince shook up the musical universe.”
His musical impact is explored in a series of studio and on-stage videos that capture his vitality and invention.
The stylistic exploration is showcased by a plethora of instruments and outfits drawn from those Paisley Park archives. It begins simply enough with a Gibson guitar used on his first TV appearances which he later had customized, overlaying leopard print material, sawing back the edges and adding a series of lights.
You can see his eye for iconic design developing as you progress through the years. An extraordinary-looking bass guitar that he bought for a band member in L.A. in the early years was clearly the inspiration for the cloud guitar that would later become one of his trademarks.
Another of his early guitars on display was a Hohner Telecaster bought from a gas station for around $30 but used by the young guitar hero into the 1980s.
Walking into the next room of the show felt like plunging into a technicolor doll’s house. An exhibition assistant was standing on the display unit, towering over some of the bijou costumes from the Purple Rain tour. When she got down she revealed that she was 5 foot 3.
“He was a tiiiiny person,” said Marchese. “He was 5 foot. 5 foot 3 with his heels on, but he had this amazing presence about him, he was larger than life and when you see the costumes it's like, 'Oh my gosh he was so tiny.'”
The shoes are one of the most eye-catching features of the show. Every mannequin is complete with another pair, all manufactured by hand in the same fabric as the rest of the ensemble.
When Marchese, who is also the director of archives for Elvis Presley, began to explore Paisley Park after 27 years at Graceland it was the footwear that bowled her over.
“The shoes!” she said. “He had matching shoes for every outfit - now normally guys have black, brown, tennis shoes, but not Prince, he had close to 2,000 pairs of shoes, it would make any woman jealous—trust me. And the funniest thing is we were at Paisley Park and getting all the wardrobe together and starting to store it in archival boxes and stuff and I opened up a closet that you would have thought was a storage closet and it was a shoe closet, you turn around and open another room and it's full of shoes.”
Many of them feature beautiful embroidery, extraordinary fabrics and iridescent thread.
Hand-drawn iterations of the designs for one of the purple trench coats worn on tour in the 1980s demonstrate Prince’s painstaking attention to detail. The show has been curated in the same meticulous vein but there has been no such dedication to the actual music; the influences that inspired him or the way his greatest works were created. Ultimately, we are never taken below Prince’s fabulous and sparkling surface layer.
My Name is Prince is at The O2, London. Details here.