Nearly 17 years after her untimely death, Diana, Princess of Wales continues to touch the lives of people throughout the world. Due to her committed charity work, her influence on her dedicated sons, and the never-ending fascination of ‘The People’s Princess’, it is clear that the public’s captivation with Diana will remain for years to come.
Earlier this summer, I had the privilege to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, in my home country of the United States to view the award-winning traveling exhibition Diana, A Celebration. The artefacts are on loan from Althorp Estate, Diana’s ancestral home. Since 1998, this exhibition has been open to the public at Althorp during the summer months, and it has then traveled throughout the world for the rest of the year. After being displayed in Iowa over the New Year period, it opened at the Cincinnati Museum Center on Valentine’s Day this year and will remain on display until 17 August 2014. However, the next month will be the last time members of the public will be able to visit this exhibition as this will be the exhibit’s final showing.
As stated in Diana’s will, her belongings were to temporarily stay in the possession of her brother, Earl Spencer, until they could be entrusted to her sons when they both became 30 years of age. Her youngest son, Prince Harry, celebrates his 30th birthday on 15th September this year, while William, The Duke of Cambridge and future monarch, is 32.
The current location and exhibit itself is one not to miss. Diana, A Celebration was clearly well-designed and the current venue does not fail to impress. The Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal is a large and revamped railroad station from the 1930s, and still astounds with its original Art Deco style. Attending on a Saturday afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised that a staggered entry system created an uncrowded environment and visitors were able to leisurely move through displays, not missing a detail.
From being welcomed with a recording from Earl Spencer, and then offered a close-up viewing of the Spencer Honeysuckle Tiara, a spectacle to behold that does not translate from photographs, visitors know they are in for a royal treat. An optional audio tour narrated by Earl Spencer is certainly worth the investment, and shares extra endearing glimpses into his sister’s life.
The first large artefact room gives a history of Althorp Estate and the individuals who lived there. For anyone who only connects Althorp as being once the home of Lady Diana Spencer, this section presents a fascinating and in-depth account of the historical value of the estate. Belonging to the Spencer family for almost 500 years, the estate has many interesting stories to tell. The residence holds a priceless collection of artwork, including those of famous artists Rubens and Gainsborough. Original portraits and jewelry belonging to the women who once inhabited or contributed to the house are presented for viewing. Particularly striking is the drawing of Lady Cynthia Eleanor Hamilton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to her granddaughter Diana.
The next large room contains mementos from Diana’s childhood and teenage years. The display includes some of her favourite toys and dancing slippers. It also includes her school uniform, school reports, a trunk and letters to her father. The items are overseen by a montage of home movies in colour, projecting on a wall in a loop. Being displayed in short clips, the moving images are heartwarming and yet somewhat haunting. Diana is shown as a baby with her family at her christening, then as an energetic child laughing as she dances and swims, and after as a young student lugging her school trunk into the car. The final frame freezes on her mid-laugh, as she flashes her infamous smile. Visitors linger at the home movie, watching and re-watching, likely thinking of how this fun-loving young girl could not possibly have predicted what her future had in store.
Many of the personal items laid out for display can be spotted in the home movies reminds the viewer of their own childhood, and allows them to connect with the girl who became a legend. Personal notes from her diary are displayed, such as: “Never to cook for meal for Sarah again!”, and family pictures in a plain album are so surprisingly mundane and relate-able, it helps show the viewer that while Diana had a privileged upbringing and an infamous adulthood, at the root of herself she was like any other young woman. A personal note on a dinner menu dated 4th November 1980 leads the exhibit into the next room. The note simply reads: “Sat next to Prince Charles…Wore a new dress and diamond & ruby earrings.”
There is only one main display in the next room and it represents the moment in which everything changed for Diana. On 29th July 1981, Lady Diana married Prince Charles, becoming Her Royal Highness Diana, Princess of Wales. The exhibit room is large and her iconic wedding dress takes up nearly all of it with its 7.6 metre train. At its side, one of the bridesmaid dresses is featured. Holding her veil is the legendary Spencer Tiara, which has been in the family since the late 1700s or early 1800s, and was remounted in the early 1900s. The two end scroll pieces still remain from the original mount. The tiara is no longer in all its sparkling glory, as short turnover time between exhibitions prevents thorough cleaning.
Wall adornments include essays on the engagement and wedding day, photos, and another looping movie of the wedding itself. The dress on show is not as fluffed up as it was while it was worn, but that only helps the viewer to see details missed by cameras on the couple’s wedding day. Upon close viewing visitors can see lace along the edges of the hem, mother of pearls dotted along the veil, and Charles and Diana’s initials painted onto the sole of her shoe. The audio tour invokes the voice of Elizabeth Emanuel, who walks the visitor through the dress and the design details. Anecdotes from the dress’s creation include thwarting the press by planting misleading materials in the shop’s garbage bin and hiring two security guards to stay with the dress throughout the night.
The guides working on the tour also offer a wealth of knowledge. One shared with me the fact that the Spencer family may, at any time, request items to be sent back to England for their use, as was done when the exhibit was in Kansas City in April 2011 when Diana’s wedding earrings were temporarily removed from the exhibit. Shortly after, they reappeared at the wedding of William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, when worn by Diana’s sister, Sarah McCorquodale.
A sweet touch in this room of the exhibition is another family photo album, full of photographs of the royal wedding decorations in London. They were proudly taken by Diana’s father, a photography enthusiast.
The following room features over twenty outfits worn by the princess after becoming a member of the royal family. Moving about the room, one can see how her style evolved. Early outfits show a young and shy woman influenced by 80s trends of bright colors, frills and large shoulders. Her personal style then becomes reflective of a hardworking mother, post-divorce, devoted to charity and featuring some of the more elegant clean lines of 90s fashion. Recognisable designer ball gowns, dress coats and hats feature prominently in front of large photographs and video clips of Diana wearing the clothes. One such notable outfit is the khaki trousers with a white collared button-up, protected with a glass faceguard and vest with the now faded Halo Trust emblem. Photos of Diana in this outfit were seen worldwide when she worked to raise awareness of landmines a few months before her death.
The final section of the exhibit covers Diana’s work in her later life and her tragic death. Letters to charity representatives show Diana’s deep and emotional involvement in the charities of which she was patron. Also displayed is a prayer book given to her by Mother Teresa, in which Diana wrote a quote by the missionary who died just days after herself.
Visitors can pay respects in the final area of the exhibit, which contains items from Diana’s funeral, including a programme, the handwritten draft of her brother’s speech, and the sheet of music used by Sir Elton John when he performed Candle in the Wind. Diana, Princess of Wales, died on 31st August 1997 after a fatal car crash in Paris.
Condolences that were written to her family in the days following the tragedy were kept and placed into large books, a portion of which are exhibited in the final room.
When visitors end their tour of the Diana, A Celebration exhibition, the museum offers another display for visitors to witness called Daughters of the Queen City. This display features women who have helped mold Cincinnati’s history through leadership and community service. Fascinating stories and artefacts from their lives, including their own wedding gowns, will be on display until next month when the exhibition shall close to the public.
While we know this is the last showing of Diana, A Celebration, what is currently unclear is what Princes William and Harry plan to do with the items in the exhibition when they come into their possession. Will they be loaned back to Althorp or continue to be displayed? The traveling exhibition is already currently raising money for Diana’s charities, and it would be unsurprising for the Princes to continue their mother’s work in the future. Will the items be auctioned off for charity, similar to the auction of Diana’s dresses held at Christie’s in New York City just two months before her death? Or will the items be preserved and stored away, occasionally making appearances at special commemorative exhibits? Employees at the museum gave a variety of opinionated answers to this question, reaffirming the fact that no one outside the royal circle knows with certainty the fate for these items.
The last day of the exhibit will be 17th August. With just a month left before these items are potentially removed from public eye indefinitely, any royal fan who is able to visit should jump on this last chance to do so.
Photo credits: Cincinnati Museum Center; Diana, A Celebration