Midtown Manhattan lacks the certain charms of the English countryside and Highmere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey’s stately post-Edwardian drama.
But you wouldn’t know the difference once you cross the threshold into Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, open now in a sprawling three-story show at 218 W. 57th St.
In the works for two years, the display is structured as a visit to the stately home that aims to give context to the hundreds of props, over 50 costumes costumes and fully recreated sets not just in the world of the show, but the real historical and social issues of its era.
“We love the idea of having a more intimate experience rather than a museum-style display,” explains Dominic Burns of NBCUniversal, which owns Downton’s production company Carnival Films and created the exhibit with the help of Imagine Exhibitions.
The result is an enchanting romp through the world of upstairs and downstairs life just before World War I, when a single stately home would employ a dozen or more servants and support an entire adjacent village’s economy.
Visitors are greeted by Downton’s butler, Mr. Carson, one of several new videos created by series stars for the exhibit, including bits with Mr. and Mrs. Crawley and Mrs. Hughes.
Stately hallways echo with the sounds of cooking as they guide you to Mrs. Patmore’s bustling kitchen filled with smells of baking and a pot “bubbling” on the stove. Pass through to the infamous bell board in the servants’ workroom, then Mr. Carson’s office, all faithfully recreated.
“We've tried to give the feeling of a permanent fixture so that you're in the house,” Burns says on a tour of the exhibit, and indeed (yes, you’ll be using words like that too after your visit) you’ll feel as though you’re walking into a working home.
The rooms were configured by the same set designer who worked on the show, with delicately crafted props like letters and bills that didn’t necessarily make it onto camera adding additional context.
Instructional videos and panels about life, manners and customs were created with the help of Manners of Downton Abbey host Alastair Bruce. “Downton is such a crown jewel for us," says Burns. "We wanted to ensure we worked with the experts.”
On the second floor, you’ll find the Crawleys’ stately dining room and Mary’s bedroom, as well as more intimate looks into the lives of each character in Downton and daily life there.
In recounting their major story arc, each character serves as an intro to discuss a broader social issue of the time, such as Lady Edith and the role of society women. An optional multimedia guide provides even more context.
“Part of the appeal of Downton is that in the world we’re living in is sort of within touching distance historically, but that life feels a world away,” says Burns. “It's fascinating understanding that whole mechanic.”
The third floor is a fashion showcase of some of the most memorable costumes of the series, from wedding dresses (successful and not) to riding costumes, leisurewear and all those many-pieced suits the gentlemen wear.
Trust when we tell you that the accompanying video detailing the dressing customs of the day is enough to make you grateful that you’re not living in their time.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open daily through Sept. 3, including holidays, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults, $15 for children.