The Princess Diaries

An exhibit at the Mall of America honors the late Princess Diana. What’s it like?

The Princess Diaries

Sarah Harper


What: Diana: A Celebration

When: 12-8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday until June 10, 2012

Where: The Mall of America, 8100 S. 24th Ave. , Bloomington

Cost: $13.50-23.50. Extra $5 for the audio tour.

The crowd at the “Diana: A Celebration” exhibit is exactly what you’d expect: The figures milling from case to case are mostly middle-aged and they’re mostly female. Most of them remember watching Lady Diana Spencer’s rise to celebrity — they remember her constant presence on the covers of their People magazines; they remember talking about her dresses and … oh! did she just shake hands with Mother Teresa on national TV?

Most of these people also remember when Princess Diana met her untimely end, so it’s fitting that there’s a box of Kleenex ready in the corner of the room dedicated to Diana’s funeral.

Not everyone fits into this “Moms deeply in love with Princess Di” category. There are also daughters, sons, boyfriends, step-children, older couples and curious shoppers.

But what all the visitors have in common is their moments of enchantment: They whisper to each other as they read aloud the personal planner Diana kept in 1979. They hum along to “Candle in the Wind.” And, depending on the intensity of their personal Anglophilia, they argue the proper arrangement of branches on the Royal Family tree.

The Althorp Estate had a heavy hand in the creation of this exhibit — the first thing we see upon entering is a letter from Charles Spencer, Diana’s younger brother. Charles guides us through her whole life for however long it takes for us to realize that it’s time to get out of the Mall and have tea or do charity work.

The first thing you see after the letter from Charles Spencer is a shiny tiara sitting on a red velvet pillow. And you better get used to seeing small, precious sparkly things, because they are peppered throughout.

A room dedicated to the Spencer women makes it clear why Diana was so proud of her last name and her heritage. One case in the room is devoted to Sarah Jenyns, the Duchess of Marlborough. She was such a self-made, rich woman that the Bank of England had to borrow cash from her. Two of her brooches, a cross pendant and a gold telescope sit beneath her portrait. The best item in this case is the carnet de bal — a French object that the duchess used to record the names of her dance partners.

But not everything about the exhibit is enchanting. You really won’t get the full vibe unless you spend the extra $5 on the audio tour. When you cue your little hand-held speaker up to play at different points in the exhibit, Charles Spencer’s voice gives you privileged information.

Diana’s bro allows himself to go into the more tender details of his sister’s short but impactful life. He tells us what the pictures and short plaques could but don’t: that Diana wore jeans and sneakers at the estate, that she befriended the household staff and that she slid down the banister on a tea tray.

One card, in the room dedicated to Diana’s childhood, tells us that Di loved to dance, but at 5 feet 10 inches tall, she was too tall to go pro. In our little earpiece, Charles comes back with the most touching information: He reminds us of the time that Diana danced to “You’re the One That I Want“ with John Travolta at a White House state dinner thrown by Ronald Reagan.                                                                                                                                                                       

Jacques Azagury comes on the recording at one point to discuss the design process of making different pieces in Diana’s wardrobe, which is chronicled extensively in its own room. All of Diana’s outfits were well researched based on whom she was meeting and what they were meeting about. If she knew she would be around babies, she would wear a gold chain necklace for them to play with. When she went to Pakistan in 1996, she sported the traditional kameez and shalwar trousers.

The horrible part about the audio tour is that the strings that play behind Charles Spencer’s voice clash with the classical music we hear all around us. This, in combination with sounds already bleeding from room to room, creates a cacophony of violins that make the ears tingle a little bit. Even so, if you want the best possible experience, pony up for the audio tour.

Without Charles Spencer’s British speech in your ear, there are still plenty of layers to appreciate in this exhibit. Only one sentence is devoted to Princess Diana’s actual passing. Almost no attention is given to her storied struggles with the media, save for a copy of Charles Spencer’s speech in which he addresses the complexity by saying, “Of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: A girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.”

It’s good that the curators put their erasers to work on the drama — nobody needs that, and it shouldn’t go down as part of her legacy. Not only did Princess Diana engage enthusiastically in difficult humanitarian work, she managed to live with the playful exuberance not often associated with the castles and estates of the British monarchy.