In the sixth season of Downton Abbey, the Crawleys reluctantly agree to open up their home to the public as a fundraiser, and must contend with gawking villagers who are appropriately stunned by the opulence of the house. And that is exactly how I felt during my time at a press preview for Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which is now in Atlanta through winter of 2022. After being greeted by a video introduction from Carson (with “that’s Mr. Carson to you” energy), visitors can walk through display rooms as well as set recreations at one’s own pace in this self-guided tour (there is an audio tour available for an additional cost, although it is not narrated by cast members).
The Tour: That wonderful opulence begins at once, as wooden doors magically open into a large display room that showcases the characters alongside history from the Edwardian era and props from the show (which are really fun to inspect). There are many, many small treasures here, including drawers to open and listening stations to learn more about the time in which Downton is set (roughly 1912-1926). Hand sanitizing stations are numerous but discreet, so you can feel safe as you paw at the gems. (Of note: masking is required).
At the back of the Great Hall, visitors can fill out a digital questionnaire to see if they would be “fit for service” (I could have been a cook, evidently; another journalist was rejected on the spot), before moving on the servants’ quarters. This was personally my favorite part of the walkthrough; from Carson’s cozy pantry, to the kitchen and the Servants Hall, my future career as a cook really started to make sense. These rooms are completely built out like the real sets, and have the feeling of being in the actual house. (Something I learned: The kitchen and a few others areas featured in the series are not actually in the real Highclere Castle, and were built just for TV.) Some of the furniture featured was used in the show, but most of it was picked out by the show’s prop master to mirror what was used in filming. I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway, because there are so many wonderfully crafted visual and auditory touches that really make these rooms pop, including a boiling copper pot and the clanging silverware of a busy kitchen.
Separating the servants’ area from that of the family is another video room with projections across three of the walls that play scenes from the show charting the history of the house. Dabbling from the business of the estate to its use in the war to what comes next is a nice transition back to the rich red carpet that adorns the first and last parts of the exhibition (although it is very dark, I almost tripped over a bench at one point while being drawn in by the Dowager’s display).
There are two interesting sets to admire here, including the Dining Hall (complete with a video etiquette lesson from Mr. Carson) and Mary’s bedroom. In between are over 50 official costumes from the show, mostly worn by Lady Mary, Lady Edith, and the Countess of Grantham (although some of the men and the servants’ adornments are featured), and they are stunning. The details are exquisite to see up close, as are the accessories displayed throughout. It all made me feel very poor, as is befitting my station.
The tour ends with a final video room that has a tonally dissonant montage of all of the deaths in the series, before switching gears to some of the funnier and lighter moments. Both served to remind me of the ups and downs of Downton’s storytelling; the richness of the setting and the costuming and the excellence of the cast sometimes being let down by the more absurd plots. But The Exhibition is, on the whole, a celebration of the best of Downton, and everything that made me fall in love with it and remain a fan through it all. It’s a loving homage to a beautiful show, and a recommended stop to experience a little of Downton’s magic stateside.
The Cost: Tickets are priced from $36, and children 14 and under (accompanied by an adult) receive free admission. Beginning Saturday, September 25th, the exhibition will open daily between 10am and 6pm (last entry at 4:30pm); tickets and more information are available at downtonexhibition.com
My note: Admittedly the ticket price is a bit steep, although in line with similar exhibitions in Atlanta—and with much easier parking. There is also money to be spent in the gift shop, including a “What Is a Weekend?” mug that I had to have.
The Location: In Atlanta, The Exhibition is at Perimeter Pointe in Sandy Springs (1155 Mount Vernon Hwy NE, Atlanta GA). It’s in a former retail space and there is plenty of free parking (it’s also right next to the Friends Experience, if you want to make a day of it).
Tip: Though the rooms are spacious, I would highly recommend going during off-peak days/hours when possible. There are a lot of things to read and look at and admire, which is better when there aren’t crowds (there’s also sparse seating in the video rooms). But even beyond that, the set recreations of the servants quarters have atmospheric sounds alongside music from the series which might be drowned out otherwise.
Set aside around 1-2 hours to stroll through the exhibition and interact as much as you can; it’s worth taking your time to really get up close to the props and costuming, and admire the curated atmosphere the exhibition offers.
The Downton Abbey movie sequel, A New Era will be in theaters March 18, 2022. Meanwhile, you can rewatch the series on Peacock, where all six seasons are streaming for free.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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