When I read about Princess Diana: Accredited Access Exhibition, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. It’s advertised as “the world’s first-ever walk-through documentary experience,” and to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I have a fascination with the Royal Family, I was going to go to the exhibit one way or another, even if it didn’t include things like royal outfits and other historic memorabilia.
I attended the exhibit in Chicago at Oakbrook Center, a mall in the suburbs of the city. When you walk up, you’re automatically taken into the world of royal life. I picked up my audio guide. To be honest, there were a ton of pictures on the wall, but I didn’t realise how interested I would be in the stories behind them. The audio guide is led by Samir and Zak Hussein, photographers and the sons of Diana’s trusted companion and lifelong photographer, Anwar Hussein. For the first time in 60 years, the world is able to hear about the infamous moments of Diana’s life that were documented and what went on behind the scenes. As the Hussein family puts it, she didn’t do what she was told but instead – followed her heart.
The first room you walk into includes portraits of several members of the Royal Family: The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Diana, Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. On your left, you can cheekily pose with one of the tiaras on the wall for a fun photo op, and if you look up, there are several banners detailing the births of the family members portrayed on the wall. The exhibit is labelled as “Diana,” but I was pleasantly surprised to see an emphasis on the coverage Zak and Samir had done on the Cambridges and Sussexes over the years.
Next, you enter The Photographer’s Darkroom. You see some photos of Anwar’s work covering Her Majesty, and then you hear the stories behind some of the most iconic royal images, including the birth of Prince Louis, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex walking through a forest during their Australian and New Zealand tour, and you get to see some candid moments of the family as well. In particular, you see a cheeky kiss between Diana and Prince Charles at a polo match, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge playing a sport while on a royal tour, and the Duchess keeping track of the page boys and flower girls at her sister Pippa’s wedding.
One photo in particular that stood out to me in this exhibit is a photo of Diana in a blue and white striped top with a large white hat. The story behind the photo goes with the story of Anwar being frustrated that the press was put towards her back at an engagement, and they wouldn’t be able to get any photos of her face. Diana overheard the conversation and looked back with a smile, and gave Anwar this iconic image.
Next, it was the Evolution of Legacy. In this room, you are taken through Anwar’s journey with then- 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in the early stages of her courtship with Prince Charles. From her early days with the paparazzi to becoming a young mother, the images take you through those first years of Diana’s royal life.
In a unique touch, there are images of her sons, Princes William and Harry, as they grow older. You see touching moments of them with their mother when they’re younger and photos nearly identical to ones of their parents with their respective wives and children. There is a big emphasis on family throughout the exhibit and the vital part it played in Diana’s life. Not only was it mentioned how much she adored her boys, but how her boys have taken how they were raised and are raising their children with the same ideals.
It was then time for fashion in the Glam room. One of the first photos you see is from 9 March 1981, when Diana undertook her first royal engagement at a fundraising concert at Goldsmiths Hall in aid of The Royal Opera House. Her debut set off headlines as many thought the 19-year-old’s black and strapless gown was inappropriate for a royal to be wearing.
You are then guided through her evolving fashion as you look at photos from royal tours, her wedding dress, her evolution of style at the Royal Ascot, and of course, there is a photo of the infamous ‘revenge dress.’ In this room, the younger royals aren’t mentioned as much. Rather, there are comparisons as to how Diana set the standard to change royal fashion boundaries and normalise things like wearing a black dress to different engagements as the colour was typically seen as a sign of mourning.
To go with the fashion trend, Crowning Glory was an exhibit unlike anything I’d ever seen. World-renowned paper sculptor Pauline Loctin had taken some of the most iconic hats worn by royals and created paper sculptures inspired by those very hats. While it would have been nice to see exact replicas, one could say the portrayal of Queen Mary’s Lover’s Knot Tiara, which is 500% larger than the original, makes up for any disappointment over how the sculptures were crafted.
In one of the last rooms, World Tour, Zak and Samir share some of their favourite memories from the Cambridge’s and Sussexes’ royal tours and how more than 20 years later, the princes nearly recreated some of the most famous moments from tours Diana and Charles did. In that room, you truly learn of the sense of humour Diana had and of the groundbreaking moments in history she made.
Flooding over into the Humanitarian room, it was moving to see photos of Diana meeting those in hospitals. At the time, there was a stigma around certain situations like meeting with an AIDS patient or letting those in different social classes touch royalty. The stories behind the images are nearly as beautiful as the images themselves as you learn how Diana truly did things her own way despite what her guide would say or royal protocol. You also learn about how important the aspect of “touch” became during royal engagements and how her sons and their wives have carried out that aspect and gotten more personal as they meet people across the globe.
Lastly, you walk into a room called Unguarded, where you see some of the most memorable and candid moments of the royals – from the Duchess of Cambridge dancing with Paddington Bear to a soaked Diana with opera star Luciano Pavarotti after he performed in the rain. One of my favourite stories from this room, despite hearing how royals are just like us and have their own candid moments, is learning how much of a friend Diana was to Anwar. There was one story in particular where he talked about how Diana snuck back from first-class to go sit on the floor and talk to him in the middle of the night on one of their flights.
I have been to several Diana exhibits in the past where her death is a large focus. What was different about this exhibit is it was hardly mentioned. There was a photo of her at a land mine, and the commentary noted how it was several months before her untimely death. Other than that, her death wasn’t really touched on. Not to say the exhibit wasn’t a tribute, but rather it left you feeling content and remembering the Princess in a positive light rather than how her life tragically ended during a car crash in 1997. In truth, it was refreshing to end on a positive note.
Princess Diana: Accredited Access Exhibition runs in Chicago until 24 April.
While it just finished its runs in Los Angeles and New York, it is confirmed this will be a touring exhibit with more dates announced in due course.