When one walks into an exhibition, regardless of its size and topic, one should be provided with a strong visual narrative. One should be immersed into a fantasy-like world filled with objects, artifacts, or even visual media, and be able to understand the message the exhibition is trying to convey. The objects, which are important non-verbal forms of communication, should be placed in meaningful locations to enhance the exhibition’s story and allow the viewer to experience it fully. Nevertheless, fulfilling such criteria is not always easy. An example of an exhibition that somewhat failed to fulfill its expected purpose is the McCord Museum’s exhibition From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly – Beyond the Icon.
From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly – Beyond the Icon, is an exhibition that sheds light and pays tribute to Grace Kelly, an Academy Award winner, Princess of Monaco, and eternal style icon. Based on the title, a visitor would think s/he would be allowed into her life and learn about who she really was beyond the legacy she left behind. But with expectation comes disappointment. Although the exhibition was carefully planned and organized to illustrate Kelly’s life through some hundred objects – letters, photographs, home videos, fashion designs, and more – it did not quite succeed in revealing something that has not been known before.
The exhibition was organized into several interconnected thematic sections that attempted to discuss the different facets of Kelly’s life. When visitors walked into the exhibit, they were welcomed by a giant photograph of Kelly accompanied by an abstract, which summarized in three short paragraphs who she was. This was a successful greeting as not everyone might have been entirely familiar with who she was. Hiding behind the photograph was the first room of the exhibition. Overloaded with objects taking up nearly all the space on the walls, one did not know where to look first. While the right side of the wall was crowded with a series of vibrant original film posters of Kelly’s most famous films, the left side held the Italian version of the film poster of The Country Girl (1954) alongside a small projection of the film. Although the walls were eye-catching and representative of Kelly’s Hollywood career, it was the middle of the room that was the most enthralling due to the golden Oscar statue she won for her role in The Country Girl and the Edith Head silk satin light blue gown she wore to receive it.
The next exhibition room showcased Kelly as a style icon by featuring a collection of her personal clothing. From silk dresses to elegant suits to iconic ladylike accessories, visitors got to admire it all. Among the few accessories displayed behind the large glass cabinets, it was the Hermès leather handbag – known also as the Kelly bag – that got most people’s hearts racing. The short white leather gloves positioned right in front of the bag were also attention grabbing, however a text explaining their provenance and meaning would have been helpful. Nevertheless, the individual pieces shown in this part of the exhibition where organized in a way that allowed the visitors to grasp Kelly’s signature look and understand how strong of an identity she had.
Moving on to the next room titled “Falling in Love”, one could slowly start to get to know Kelly, the woman who was so much more than just an icon. Through emotional love letters from her husband and a quote by Kelly stating, “my real life began with my marriage”, it was hardly impossible not to feel fondness and sympathy for this woman. This part of the exhibition also displayed Kelly’s pale pink taffeta civil wedding dress, which she accessorized with matching shoes and a Juliet cap. A big disappointment was the absence of her religious bridal gown designed by MGM fashion designer Helen Rose. Considered as one of the most famous wedding dresses in history, it would have been an exceptional experience to see it on display. But considering the dress was too fragile of an artifact and would have been time-consuming for conservation and quite expensive for management, one is compelled to forgive the McCord (Palmer 2008: 58). What made up for it, however, was the silk black dress with embroidered 3D flowers she wore to the Expo 67’, which gave the exhibition a bit of local flavor. Besides being a devoted wife, Kelly was also a loving mother of three children. This was successfully shown through the poignant home movies and photographs where one could see a truly ordinary woman spending quality time with her loved ones. Thus, having such non-verbal materials added greatly to the understanding of the exhibition (Palmer 2008: 35).
The second to last room was the most visually appealing and dynamically interesting due to the dark purple walls, the big crystal chandeliers, and the costume ball gowns Kelly wore to different events as Princess of Monaco. But although this room was spectacular, it was difficult to understand the transition from seeing Kelly as an adoring wife and mother to suddenly seeing her back as royalty. It seemed that the sole purpose of this section was to emphasize the formal beauty of clothes.
The final room of the exhibition was simple and minimalist, showcasing three large portraits of the natural-looking Kelly and a quote by Victor Hugo. Her mysterious and tragic death was not dwelled on, which left the visitor with a feeling of bewilderment, unsure if s/he got to know the real Grace.
Altogether, the exhibition was rich with an exciting mix of work. The opportunity to see dresses from designers who shaped the fashion history, such as Balenciaga, Chanel, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Dior was astonishing, and reading personal love letters from King Rainier III felt like reading a fairy tale story. Further, the decoration of the interior of the exhibition was simple but effective. The walls were in neutral colors and matched the color-coordinated clothing on display, which worked perfectly as Kelly was known to epitomize the sophisticated yet simple glamour of Fifties Hollywood. But the goal of the McCord Museum was to present Kelly – the woman beyond the icon – and I felt uncertain if this goal had been accomplished. On one hand, we got to experience Kelly as an actress, a style icon, a princess, a wife and mother, but on the other hand it offered nothing new to those already familiar with her. Hence, it still remains unclear who the primary audience for this exhibit was. The exhibition was also too sweet, portraying Kelly’s life as a fairy tale without any obstacles or sorrows. For my part, the true Grace Kelly remained hidden behind the perfection of her image.