Winterthur Museum is not exactly a “pop culture” destination. The Delaware museum is known for its massive collection of American decorative arts made from 1640 to 1860. The museum grounds include a 1,000-acre preserve of rolling meadows that creates a sense of tranquility.
In the last five years, the museum has taken advantage of a pair of television programs to get more visitors in the door. The 2014 exhibit Costumes of Downton Abbey and the current display featuring costumes from the Netflix series “The Crown” have helped update how visitors view the collection inside the former 175-room home of Henry Francis DuPont.
Exhibit co-curator Jeff Groff said the 2014 exhibit based off the PBS smash hit “Downton Abbey” doubled the museum’s average attendance and nearly doubled the number of members.
“It’s really made a difference in getting us more exposure,” said Groff. “We’re seeing a dramatic increase from previous years in attendance and also a much more geographically-diverse audience.”
“The Crown” presents a dramatized history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The show’s costumes have won multiple awards over the first two seasons including the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Period Costumes and the 2017 BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design. The show’s third season starts streaming Nov. 17.
Forty costumes make up the Costuming The Crown exhibition, which runs through January. Much like the “Downton Abbey” display, “The Crown” exhibit features historically accurate costumes, making it a good fit for Winterthur, the only place in North America they will be on display.
“Our conservators were really intrigued when they looked inside the dresses to see how they were constructed,” said co-curator Kim Collison. “The costume designers really do a great job.”
That detailed work and viewers’ appreciation for “The Crown” draws people in, but Groff said it’s the rest of Winterthur that guests are surprised to discover. “This is like the first step in,” he said. “What’s great is that people coming for these exhibits then go into the house tours, see the decorative art galleries, go into the garden and really see everything that Winterthur is and can offer to a visitor.”
As she provided a tour through the exhibit earlier this week, Collison highlighted the level of detail that went into the wedding dress that Claire Foy wore when the show portrayed Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 wedding. “This dress is very, very detailed, lots of embroidery. It took the costume team six weeks to create this dress and do the embroidery,” she said. There’s also a bit of a TV trick that close observers will notice. “You’ll see that at the top of the dress, we see more detail than towards the bottom. This is because this is where the camera focuses when they’re filming.”
One of the most popular parts of the exhibit focuses on the episode depicting President Kennedy — and more notably for the costume display — Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Buckingham Palace. “It gives us a good window into the style of both of them,” Groff said.
There’s a deeper connection between the Kennedys and Winterthur, Groff pointed out. The Kennedys visited England in June of 1961, just one month after Jackie Kennedy spent the day at Winterthur. She visited to ask Henry Francis DuPont to chair her fine arts committee for the restoration of the White House. “We have some wonderful descriptions of the lunch and dinner here for Jackie Kennedy. So this is another instance where we are making that leap from `The Crown’ to something that actually happened with Henry Francis DuPont here at Winterthur.”
The museum will continue to look for opportunities to feature television and film connections when they make sense. “We’re mining our collection for things that tell stories for a broader audience,” Groff said.
Costuming The Crown is on display through Jan. 5.
In 2020, the museum will honor the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote. Collison said they’re scouring Winterthur’s collection for objects that focus on women’s history.
“We are going to be taking a look at some unexpected stories about women that are in those objects,” she said. “A lot of these objects have never been interpreted through the perspective of a woman, so we’re taking that opportunity.” A separate exhibition will look at the life of Ruth Wales Dupont who lived at Winterthur. “People often ask if there was a Mrs. DuPont because we talk so much about Mr. DuPont,” Collison said.
Next year’s exhibit hopes to put that question to rest while building on the momentum “The Crown” exhibit has provided.