Exhibition Exploits Princess Diana and Her Fans


©February 20, 2014

Princess Diana.

Breathe in her name for a moment. Just breathe. It. In. Are you getting a little misty? Take a moment to compose yourself.

I’ve got news that might put a little twinkle in your tiara. If you’ve ever played the game Dead or Not Dead and chosen “dead” for Princess Di, you’ve chosen wrong.

Many believe the final stop on Diana’s world tour is that fateful tunnel in Paris. Not so. Diana’s final stop, as billed in marketing material, is the Museum Center in Cincinnati, where “Diana, A Celebration” ends an 11-city tour. The exhibition holds court for the next half-year in the center’s basement galleries.

I wasn’t among the three-quarters of a billion people who tuned in to Diana’s Royal Wedding or the global audience, in 1997, for her funeral. Fascinations with celebrity culture and British royalty never took root within me. Once, several years ago, I was having breakfast at an outdoor cafe in L.A. when who should sit right next to me but the guy who played Kenny Bania on “Seinfeld.” You’d have thought I didn’t even recognize him.

So when I paid full price on Wednesday, I did so not to soak up the life of a princess but to meet the people who, in their hearts, choose “not dead.”

I wanted to find out about the Diana magic, as termed in the exhibition’s printed marketing, that continues captivating people around the world. What, I wondered, 17 years after Diana’s death, would compel people to pay up to $24 (and more for the accompanying audio tour) to step the thickness of a sheet of Pyrex away from all things Diana?

Even on a midweek evening, I expected a long queue. So did museum officials, who’ve prepared about 50 yards of moveable barriers to funnel guests. If it takes a minimum of two people to form a line, then there was no line Wednesday at the Museum Center.

Painted along the wall leading to the galleries is this: “How will you #CelebrateDiana?” Apparently, few are celebrating, at least on Twitter (50 followers, and not a single tweet since May 2012). I found the galleries nearly deserted.

A sonata I can’t name, or perhaps it’s a fugue, plays as you walk past a crown painted onto a wall alongside a quote attributed to Diana: “Everyone has the potential to give something back.” Not quite Mother Theresa, but I can’t argue the sentiment.

Around the bend, a tiara rests on a red, crushed velvet pillow. It’s an “adaptation of gem set jewelry” encrusted with “several different English jewels.” Cubic zirconia? Genuine diamels, perhaps? I wouldn’t trust American lookiloos with the real thing, either, if I were Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, who originated the exhibition.

There are display cases with brooches, bracelets, rings, seals and coronets. There’s a room reliving Diana’s childhood and another, the size of a walk-in closet and the smallest in the exhibition, devoted to Diana’s life with Prince Charles.

It’s all merely a tease for the majesty that follows.

Brace yourself.

We’ve arrived at Diana’s wedding dress.

The white cream gown floats on a ghostly, faceless mannequin, spotlighted under a glass case long enough to display the entirety of its 25-foot train. Diana’s wedding shoes and earrings are also there, all set to a loop of Royal Wedding music and highlights of the televised ceremony.

This is the exhibition’s money moment. I get choked up just thinking about it. Not the dress, mind you, but the time I spent there. A passerby might have mistaken my expression for astonishment, if there were an actual passerby to witness it. How else to describe my thoughts over the other things I could have done with $24?

But oh, we’re far from done with “Diana, A Celebration.”

You’d think after reliving the splendor of Diana’s wedding, Earl Spencer—by the way, Earl is a royal title, not a name—would be kind enough to allow us to float back to Earth before continuing our journey. But no. He has us in the grasp of delight and isn’t about to drop us now.

In the next expansive room, Diana’s evening wear is on wall-to-wall display—two dozen gowns and dresses showcasing “her hallmark style.” The scarlet, the chiffon, the colors that would challenge the names inside a box of Crayolas. One designer outfit comes with a clear face visor and fitted, blast-resistant vest — Diana wore this in Bosnia to highlight the dangers of land mines.

There are also video montages of Diana out and about in these dresses, allowing people to match up the dresses behind Pyrex with those on screen. I’m not equipped to appreciate this level of interactive glamor, but others are. I know this because, at this point in the exhibition, I came across another surprise—other paying visitors.

They were 25-year-old John Drosick, who grew up in Anderson Township and graduated St. Xavier High School, and his father and stepmother. Drosick initiated the trip. His interest stems from watching Kate Middleton’s wedding and connecting the cultural fascination back to Diana.

“I wanna’ act like I’m not, but I get swept up in the celebrities and sports and all that pop culture,” Drosick said. “I was in London and got to see all the royalty culture there. In this room, it kinda’ reminds me of our pop culture.”

Drosick turned back to look at a crimson dress. “She was really glamorous,” he said.

Those who hold Diana alive in their hearts will either feel uplifted or crushed by the next room. A video collage—Diana on a beach, Diana stepping off a plane, her funeral procession—plays on a wall above a carpet of crushed red rose petals. There are drafts of her brother’s eulogy to Diana. Underscoring the sorrow of the moment is a soundtrack—Elton John’s version of “Candle in the Wind.”

Organizers thought ahead here, placing a floral box of tissue in a corner next to a modest mahogany bench, for those too overcome to continue.

Several feet away, perfectly upright and composed, were Peggy Ihlendorf of Sycamore Township and her two adult daughters, Jamie Zamora of Deer Park and Becky Holekamp of Evandale. The daughters purchased this visit as a Valentine’s gift to their mother.

“When I was younger, people would tell me I looked like Princess Di,” Ihlendorf said. “I like to watch fashion, and she was fashionable. I was riveted to coverage of the car crash.”

Holekamp inherited her mother’s tastes in popular culture, rattling off TMZ, Radar and Perez Hilton as web sites she visits “at least five times a day.”

“She was thin, she was pretty. I like glamor. I like to follow beautiful people,” Holekamp said of the princess.

“Why am I so starstruck? That’s a good question,” she said. “I watch ‘The Kardashians,’ which is just trash, but they do sometimes say things you can relate to that somehow makes me feel a little closer to their lifestyles.”

The sisters looked at each other and back at their mother, who shrugged.

“Come to think of it, I think I let the media manipulate me,” Holekamp said. “The media brainwashes you to believe they’re something special.”

“Well, let’s face it—she was pretty,” Ihlendorf said. “And I don’t think she would have anywhere close to this kind of attention and fascination if she wasn’t pretty.”

Only in the next room, near the final stretch, do we gain any glimpse of Diana’s humanitarian work—her efforts to eradicate landmines in Bosnia and to help people suffering from AIDS and leprosy. We want details. Instead, we close our visit in a library filled with bound volumes of cards, letters and other notes of condolences sent to the Spencer family in the wake of Diana’s death.

Of course, no exhibition of this magnitude would be complete without a pass through the gift shop—mandatory if you want to leave the hall—where you can buy, among other keepsakes, a miniature porcelain shoe for $199, a crystal scent bottle for $50, a rose-patterned umbrella for $39 and a “tot” glass for $15. I overheard someone working the register telling a customer that, at the Spencer family’s request, none of the jewelry or other accessories on hand replicate Diana’s actual possessions.

Already in the first week, visitors have filled dozens of pages in a guest book with personal messages, many of them directed to Diana. One, an 11-year-old named Uma, wrote: “In school, we learned that nobody’s perfect. After I found out about Diana, I have trouble believing that.”

Nothing in this sanitized, saccharine exhibition could stain Uma’s view. But I wonder whether anybody will leave this lollipop feeling played for superficial suckers. I wonder whether Diana, herself, would feel this exhibition reduces her to little more than a clothes horse?

I’m not at all criticizing the princess. Under intense international media scrutiny, she leveraged her position to illuminate a broad public about crises they likely would have overlooked. Her heart, by all appearances, was in the right place.

People are free to remember Diana, Princess of Wales, as they wish. And in our land of capitalistic opportunity, people are free to exploit those memories (a portion of proceeds from “Diana, A Celebration” are going to charities connected to causes the princess supported).

Perhaps there’s a sliver of hope in the sparse attendance Wednesday, that 17 years after Princess Diana’s death, people are ready to let her rest in peace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s