Downton Abbey: The Exhibition has more in common with a museum than with the Friends Experience, which just vacated the same strip-mall space at Perimeter Pointe in Sandy Springs. Sure, both are immersive experiences based on iconic television series. But Downtown Abbey is a period drama, so this exhibition also explores real life, turn-of-the-century British aristocracy. Anyone interested in history could enjoy a visit, and they wouldn’t have to know the inside jokes—like why it’s funny to pretend you’re helping Ross push a sofa up the stairs. Think of it as a miniature visit to the Biltmore in Asheville, where this exhibition was on view in late 2019.
One reason for its authenticity is that Tom Zaller, president and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, which created this show, got his start in 1998 helping direct Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, which attracted some 25 million visitors worldwide to see actual relics of the shipwreck. That incident and Downton Abbey, which takes place from 1912 to 1926, date back to the same era. In fact, the Titanic’s sinking is woven into the series’ plot and is mentioned in the first episode. “There’s a lot of similarities to it,” says Zaller. “There’s a story connection, there’s English influence, there’s the story of those who serve and those who are being served, of the different classes. I felt so sure this would work and translate” into an effective immersive experience.
The first room is the Character Gallery. Exhibits dedicated to both major and minor characters shed light on how real-life lady’s maids, cooks, butlers, and aristocrats (both “old” and “new” money) would’ve lived during the post-Edwardian era. Be sure to pull out the built-in drawers beneath the display cases to see props like Anna’s arrest warrant, O’Brien’s resignation letter, and a magazine ad for “curing” homosexuality like the one discovered by the anguished but ultimately happy Thomas Barrow. At the end of that hall is an exhibit dedicated to everyone’s favorite character, the Dowager Countess. See a couple of her dresses and watch video clips of Violet’s infamous zingers (Isobel Crawley: “How you hate to be wrong!” Countess: “I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation.”) There are also monitors where you can “apply” for a job at the castle (Kiosk: “What would you do if your employer summons you to the library, then keeps you waiting outside for half an hour?” Me: “Knock on the door and remind them.” Apparently, I would make a good cook.)
There are elaborately detailed reproductions of several sets, including Mary’s bedroom, the grand dining room, and all of the servants’ spaces—including Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen and the servants hall with its famous bell board summoning servants to various rooms upstairs. Many props throughout are original to the show (including the bells) or were sourced by the same prop companies. There are also lots of elaborately produced videos, with clips of some of the series’ most memorable and poignant moments. Mr. Carson, the head butler, acts as your host.
But the stars of the show are more than 50 actual costumes, ranging from utilitarian servants’ frocks to hunting outfits, daywear, formalwear, and elaborately beaded flapper gowns—including Lady Sybil’s scandalous pantaloons. Apparently, British aristocracy were known to change as often as seven times a day. Several displays are devoted to all the weddings, including a remarkable appliqued mauve velvet coat worn by Mrs. Hughes when she married Mr. Carson. Center stage is Edith’s ivory satin wedding gown. (Isn’t it still wonderful that she got to wear the best dress?)
Imagine Exhibitions currently has some 40 shows traveling the world. Although the company is based in Atlanta, not all of their shows make it here. However, Zaller is determined to find a place for his next project—a Harry Potter experience.
How to visit:
Address: 1155 Mount Vernon Highway Northeast, Sandy Springs (In the Perimeter Pointe shopping center, not far from the Chick-fil-A)
Dates: September 25 through January 17
Hours: 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. daily (last admission at 4:30 p.m.)
Cost: Tickets start at $36; children 14 and under accompanied by an adult are free
Where to buy tickets: Online here—purchase tickets for a designated arrival time slot, then go through the exhibition at your own pace.
Covid-19 precautions: Masks are required
Parking: Free and abundant. You can also walk from the Sandy Springs MARTA station.