Carson the butler would be appalled. Downton Abbey in an American shopping mall? You can almost hear his disdain. But it’s true. Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, based on the hugely successful television series, is housed through January 17, 2022, at the Perimeter Pointe mall in Sandy Springs, a few steps from a Mattress Firm store. This instantly brings to mind Lady Mary Crawley’s passionate night with a handsome Turkish diplomat that ended abruptly when he died in her bed, on her mattress. The scandal! But I digress.
I was met at the plain double doors not by Carson but by Karen and Phil Blecker of Hilton Head, South Carolina, who were just leaving. Originally, they’d planned to see the exhibit in 2019 at the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, its fourth U.S. stop, but Karen has difficulty walking and decided the venue would be too challenging physically. So they waited and drove to Sandy Springs instead. “We were thrilled with it,” she said, all smiles. They loved it so much they are going to watch the series a third time. (It’s currently available on streaming services Peacock and PBS, Netflix and Amazon Prime.)
I’ve watched the series twice and seen the movie, drawn to the story in part because I grew up in England in a mixed-class family. My mother came from a wealthy “upstairs” family that had a live-in butler and maid. My working-class father’s grandparents met while they were in service, employed by a family probably much like my mother’s.
Once inside I got my ticket and free audio guide and smiled while my photo was taken against a green screen. (On the way out I could have bought a print showing me embedded in a “Downton Abbey” room, or standing in front of the abbey itself. I decided not to.) Next was the introductory video with the fastidious, always correct Carson (played by Jim Carter) welcoming me to the Crawley home. A delightful start.
Then I entered a long, dimly lit room filled with large vertical panels featuring photos and video of the key characters. On the walls’ small video screens, the actors talk about their roles and the series’ unexpected success. Throughout the room, beautifully lit display cases are full of artifacts such as Bates’ handcuffs, the necklace Lady Mary gave her ladies’ maid Anna, and the telegram Lord Grantham received in 1914 announcing that England was at war.
That telegram was never seen up close in the series. The producers could have used any old piece of paper in that dramatic scene, but instead they created an historically accurate document. It’s testament to the level of detail that the production company, and now the exhibit, has insisted upon.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition not only provides behind-the-scenes factoids about where and how the series was made — the downstairs scenes were filmed at a location 60 miles from the abbey for example — but information about the era in which it’s set. The sinking of the Titanic, the horrors of World War I and, most of all, the way English life was changing at the beginning of the 20th century.
Text and photos illustrate how England’s rigid social structure was giving way to more porous boundaries between classes and greater upward mobility for maids like Gwen, who becomes a secretary in the series. (Carson, always the traditionalist, was horrified.) Women didn’t yet have the vote, but society ladies were beginning to work outside the home and become independent from their husbands, a big shift. The historical backdrop was always an important component of Downton Abbey for me. Without that, it’s just a soap opera in period costume that gets very silly toward the end.
At the far end of the room you can use a touch screen to apply for a job at Downton. I first applied by checking off the good-girl answers to the multiple-choice questions, and then applied a second time with bad-girl answers. Needless to say, I was “being considered” the first time around but told to “try the next house over” the second go-round. I don’t know if Steve and Phyllis Galloway played with this fun, hands-on part of the exhibit. I do know they drove in from Tallapoosa, Georgia, close to the Alabama border. It was a birthday present for Phyllis, Steve told me. He was one of the few men there last Thursday and he looked interested, but not exactly thrilled.
For many visitors, the heart of the exhibit lies in the meticulously decorated rooms or sets, from Carson’s pantry and the servants’ hall to Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen and Lady Mary’s bedroom. In the kitchen I met Atlantans Charina Shields and Suzette André who, like me, were ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spotless rows of pots and pans, the food half-prepared on the long table, even the sounds of clattering dishes. Mrs. Patmore’s and Daisy’s clothes are there on stiff mannequins, but close your eyes and you can imagine the two of them in the flesh, rushing and fussing as they always do. Shields and André had planned a girls’ trip to see the exhibit at the Biltmore in March 2020 but when Covid hit, they had to cancel. They seemed delighted with this iteration.
They hadn’t yet seen the big family dining room, but I had. Oh my, could it be any more elegant with its fine china and glittering crystal, flowers and silver candelabras? It’s definitely an exhibit highlight, and one of the few rooms where an employee is present, presumably to make sure we don’t walk off with the silver.
Then there’s the clothes. Lots of them. Most of the 20 or so visitors I saw were women, and this is the room where they seemed to linger the longest. We viewed sturdy suits for hunting and walking, Lady Sybil’s flowing harem pants — an outfit that shocked the family — the Crawley women’s elaborate gowns and Lady Edith’s wedding dress, hopefully not the one she wore when she was jilted at the altar. There are display cases of jewelry and one just for hats. All of it is artfully lit.
The last item here is the dressing gong. The audio invites us to strike it before walking into the final room where once again we see Carson on video. He scolds the anonymous person who hit the gong — a fun touch. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) appears and asks him to look at the hundreds of job applications they have received. Would mine have made the grade, I wonder? Finally, they say their goodbyes, as do Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). These exhibit videos are so carefully scripted and so well acted that, as with the series, you feel you know the characters personally.
A few more steps and I was in the gift shop where I bought a package of Eccles cakes to eat on the way home, a blast from my past for sure, and looked at the lavish coffee-table books, the bars of clotted cream fudge, the ubiquitous mugs and tea towels. I peeked at the tables and chairs in the small room at the far end. It can be rented for private events, I learned.
The very accommodating staff wear masks, and visitors are required to do the same. I have only three complaints. The “listen here” speakers in the first room are not very intuitive — you have to pull them off a magnetic catch to listen. Secondly, I didn’t see Dame Maggie Smith, who played Violet, the Dowager Countess, in any of the exhibit videos, which was disappointing, but I did see lots of clips from the series in which she tosses off those hilariously rude comments viewers love.
Lastly, on the way out there is a photo stand-in board of four Downton characters. No, I didn’t stick my head through one of the holes for a photo. Carson would surely say this touristy flourish is an appalling way to end. And Carson deserves the last word.
Gillian Anne Renault has written for ArtsATL since 2012 and in August 2021 was named senior editor of the website’s Art+Design and Dance coverage. She plans to see the new movie Downtown Abbey: A New Era when it’s released in theaters on March 18, 2022.