Off a busy New York thoroughfare, you are suddenly assailed by the scent of pine, a twinkling Christmas tree, a paneled ceiling colored gold and Tiffany blue, and a big picture of the Crawley family of Downton Abbey and their servants gazing at you.
Surely, at any moment, Lady Edith will run weeping after another slight from her sister to, well not London but the Q train.
Welcome to Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which is housed in the very un-Highclere House like surrounds of a cavernous space on West 57th Street. If you've been jonesing for the show since it expired almost two years ago, this is the exhibit for you.
Inside, the exhibition’s organizers have bought life and above stairs down to as proximate life as they can, with recreations of the servant’s quarters and the main dining room, as well as Lady Mary’s bedroom (there is, sadly, no expired Mr. Pamuk in the bed-sheets).
Julian Fellowes, on a video introduction, welcomes us to a show he thinks was so popular because it showed two worlds of masters and servants, working in something like harmony.
Downton was an idealized society, stripped of divisions wrought by privilege. That was perhaps its most fantastical element.
A little video of Carson the butler follows the Fellowes one. He is puzzled that we should want to see how those below stairs lived, as well as the poshos upstairs.
And so we begin in the servants’ quarters, and replica renderings of where they ate, and, of course, Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, where chaos endued at every mass dinner. And remember her meltdown over the fridge and the whisk.
The original panel of bells, whose tinkling related to specific rooms in the house for a servant to repair to, is there on the wall too. There are replica eggs lying around: the kitchen is meant to have been caught mid-Patmore conflagration.
In between the perfectly reproduced rooms are actual costumes, as worn by Anna and Mrs. Carson, Mr. Bates and Mr. Carson, and Thomas the butler. There’s even a witty test to take, which will tell you what position you could have within the household.
My favorite replica is the set of stairs between the servants’ kitchen and the upstairs house. In the show, the servants’ scenes were shot in a studio, and the upstairs scenes mainly at Highclere. The servants’ stairs simply stopped, and the director shouted ‘Cut.’ Here, the servants’ stairs also stop.
For the ‘upstairs,’ the dining room is rendered again, fully set as if for a meal, where the Dowager Countess will let forth a volley of zingers. What is striking you is the amount of detail—on plates, crystal, the amazing dresses worn by Mary, Edith, Sybil (RIP), Rose, and the Dowager Countess, that is lost on TV, and very evident here.
The sense of Downton, but not-Downton, is accentuated by the various videos and holograms of the actors, either welcoming us, telling us to step this way and that. There are story boards of characters, and various plots, be they war, pestilence, sudden deaths, secret babies, or the constant threats to the future of the house, always mysteriously resolved by the arrival of a miraculous letter.
One room is an all-surrounding video wall of events that took place in the drawing room, and then finally—for all the fashion hawks—a room devoted to gowns, including Edith’s two wedding dresses. Helpfully, there is also a panel relating the story of her tumultuous personal life.
Altogether now: POOR EDITH.
Just as Carson bid us welcome, so he, Mrs. Carson, and Lord and Lady Grantham bid us farewell, in another screening room, and—in the gift shop—you too can buy hats just like Cora wore, as well as Downton Abbey-branded jewelry and T-shirts.
What is this exhibit? A unabashedly camp, yet straight-faced, mind-bath for the bereaved, really. The stars of the show, visiting New York City, to promote the exhibit have again spoke tantalizingly about the possibility of a Downton Abbey movie. After New York, the exhibit itself will travel to American cities, as yet unnamed.
Downton’s bubble of class and social fantasy shows no signs of bursting. The exhibit is like watching the show itself on all those wintry Sunday nights: a comfort blanket against the world.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is at 218 West 57th Street, NYC.