Diana exhibit a polished invitation
Spencer family tribute turns blind eye to princess's failings
Saturday, Feb 09, 2013 06:00 am
Diana, Princess of Wales, led a life that was a mix of royal pomp and pop culture, and she inadvertently became the high priestess for the cult of celebrity.
She lived large and Diana: A Celebration is tailored to uphold her image. The touring exhibition opens today at West Edmonton Mall for a four-month run, and is primed to deliver blockbuster allure but with a velvet edge.
It is just over 15 years since the death of Diana, a legend immortalized in paparazzi’s flashbulbs. The much-anticipated Diana: A Celebration depicts her life and legacy, and takes the viewer from her early childhood at Althorp Estate to the waterfall of worldwide grief her sudden death triggered.
Diana’s brother, Earl Charles Spencer, fostered the family project and is heavily involved with the tour that started six months after his sister’s death.
“The exhibition is laid out to introduce the family and we learn in great detail about the Spencer family tree, a family with a great deal of power and influence, and we learn how Diana was influenced by her grandmother,” says John Norman, president of Arts and Exhibitions International.
Norman leads a multi-national team in design, production, marketing and sales of this touring exhibition throughout the world.
The exhibit, direct from Althorp Estate, covers almost 7,000 square feet. It contains 150 objects distributed among nine galleries that cover varying periods of Diana’s life. Fashionistas will delight in viewing 28 exquisite designer dresses and two diamond tiaras.
The galleries also introduce family heirlooms, personal mementos, paintings and rare home movies and pictures shot by her father, Lord Edward John Spencer, an avid photographer.
The showpiece is Princess Diana’s wedding dress, an ivory gown trailing a stunning train that measures 7.5 metres (25 feet).
“It was to be a romantic evocation of the Victorian era with dramatic crinolines and layers of flounces,” says art handler Graeme Murton.
Along with Nick Grossmark, the two art handlers are the only people in the world permitted to handle the dress that’s stored in a hermetically sealed crate during transit.
Fashioned by relatively unknown British designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel in 1981, the puffy-sleeved dress is an elaborate concoction made from dozens of metres of lightweight satin, tulle and lace. The “wedding dress of the century” as it was dubbed, is hand-embroidered with more than 10,000 pearls and mother-of-pearl sequins.
Diana’s wedding slippers, barely seen during her July wedding under metres of skirt, are also on display beside a silk taffeta flower girl’s dress.
Incorporating a dash of high-tech gadgetry, the wedding dress gallery is also studded with numerous photographs and two large screens looping highlights of wedding day footage.
Interestingly enough, in a behind-the-scenes photograph of the wedding party, Diana is crouched down consoling a frightened little flower girl.
“She brought herself down to calm the children and did that throughout her whole life,” Murton points out. He refers to Diana’s preferred habit of stooping or sitting beside people to speak on the same level.
The first gallery is small and contains only a single diamond tiara, its bandeau composed in a Greek key pattern. The spotlit tiara sparkles with fire in the darkened room creating an immediate dramatic appeal.
This tiny gallery opens into a larger room dedicated to the Spencer women. Clustered with priceless jewelry, it is a symbol of the Spencer wealth and power through the centuries. A sapphire and diamond brooch, an emerald cross, and ring with a pink tourmaline the size of a walnut are mere tokens that establish the Spencer influence.
Anchoring all the smaller pieces is the Riviere Necklace designed with 46 diamonds. It is beautiful a study in 19th century craftsmanship where every single diamond is detachable and a bracelet can be constructed from its parts.
This gallery leads into a room of Diana’s early years. Passing through this space, it resembles the room of any young British girl, filled with personal trinkets – ballet slippers, photos, a report card, a school uniform, a typewriter and animal figurines.
Before entering the wedding dress gallery, visitors pass through a small corridor that touches on Diana’s engagement to Charles. Only four photographs of the couple acknowledge their upcoming nuptials.
Immediately after the wedding dress gallery, patrons enter the tribute gallery with panels and a video playing out excerpts of Diana’s funeral. Most touching are the packed throngs of mourners standing, sitting, crying, and passing candles and flowers.
This gallery also displays Elton John’s hand-written copy of Candle in The Wind.
Nothing is mentioned of her life as a royal. At first it appears jarring. But in retrospect, this is a Spencer family exhibition designed to market their lineage.
But it is odd that in celebrating Diana’s life, Charles Spencer barely includes her role as mother, something she cherished dearly throughout her entire adult life – short as it was.
On a sunnier note, the next gallery highlights the charities Diana worked tirelessly to promote. Another video montage displays her in action comforting children with leprosy, orphaned AIDS babies and innocent landmine victims.
“She wasn’t afraid to be involved in causes she believed in,” noted art handler Nick Grossmark.
“She wanted to be known as a workhorse, not a clotheshorse,” Murton added.
Dresses and more dresses
And yet it is the second to last gallery of 28 spectacular designer evening dresses and suits that will have visitors chattering.
From Armani and Jacques Azagury to Versace and a smattering of well-known English designers, this gallery exudes her celebrity glamour, sophistication and mystery. Many outfits – evening dresses, cocktail dresses and suits – are positioned in front of an image depicting the garment as Diana wore it.
The final gallery is a gift shop of memorabilia that is clearly designed to generate income instead of providing a clearer picture of Diana.
The exhibition is similar to a perfectly polished invitation to an exclusive banquet. Yet upon leaving I felt curiously empty, as if I had still not grasped the essence of Diana.
She was a 19-year-old kindergarten teacher who married the heir to the British throne in a fairytale wedding watched by an estimated one billion people. While at first the saviour of the monarchy, she later became its scourge.
Throughout her short life she presented complex and contradictory images: devoted wife, loving mother, fashion-plate beauty, vengeful divorcee, confessed adulteress, media manipulator and global humanitarian. As a woman with a full measure of human failings, she was both a saint and sinner.
Through it all the public remained infatuated with Diana’s Shakespearean circus. As she revealed her failings, the public connection grew stronger and she garnered the nickname “the queen of hearts.” She was the people’s princess.
Unfortunately, the exhibit paints Diana, Princess of Wales as just a saint. While the exhibit is a reflection of the Spencer family’s desire to remind the world of Diana’s positive influence, it impoverishes her memory. She was admired for her beauty, style and humanitarian works, and loved because of her failings. She was one of us.
To portray Diana only as a saintly Mother Theresa figure (Diana had a deep admiration for the tiny nun) is to diminish her contributions and present only one-half of a complex life.
See this exhibit if you are a fashionista, gemologist, royal watcher or 1990 pop culture buff. But if you are a serious history buff or searching to better separate the myth from the person, this showpiece may not be for you.