Often when you go to the opening night of an exhibition, there’s a bunch of hangers-on who’ll stand around quaffing the wine and consuming the canapes, but who pay very little attention to the exhibition itself. That was not the case at launch tonight of “Diana – A Celebration” at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Although I would sometimes include myself in the category of exhibition hangers-on, as soon as the exhibition doors were open tonight, I was inside very quickly.
But before we were allowed downstairs, it was time for speeches from a couple of Powerhouse Museum officials and former NSW Premier, Neville Wran, who famously danced with Diana many years ago. He spoke of the significance of Diana on a number of levels, declaring her a “phenomenon”. Most memorably, Wran reminisced about the famous quote from Sir Robert Menzies about Queen Elizabeth – “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her til’ I die” (or something like that), declaring that, had Menzies lived to another generation, he probably would have declared the same about Diana. He also reflected on the nature of celebrity, declaring that anyone could be a celebrity these days, fewer could be legends, but that Diana was a “phenomenon”.
Although a colleague told he me thought Wran had delivered a “dreadful speech” because he had failed to talk much about his personal contact with Diana, I quite enjoyed it. In fact, I remembered a high school teacher many years extolling the virtues of Wran’s speech giving abilities at the opening of extensions to the Casino Hospital in Northern NSW in the early 1980s. A recent victim of throat cancer, my high school teacher noted that Wran was thereby forced to deliver a speech of utmost brevity, and thus delivered something quite memorable.
Most memorable for me, as we wandered through the exhibition launch was who was there. I couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of women between about the ages of 30 and 45 and a lot of gay men (including a very cute red-headed guy! – hello if you’re reading). What seemed to touch most people most was the ordinariness of some of the material including the school uniform, the diaries and other personal items. In many respects, these were far more touching, because of their sheer humanity, than were some of the more spectacular items, such as “the wedding dress”.
A lot less glamorous than it appeared on television, and faded with age, some of the lace on the dress actually looked like something you might pick up from a Splotlight store. The three of us who attended also smiled when we reflected on how incredibly awful some of her dresses were. Listening in to nearby conversations, it seemed there was a lot of interest in how large or small Diana was as a women, and the extent to which the dresses gave people an indication into what she was like as a person.
One of the women I was with reflected on how important some of the photography was, including the publicity photographs for this exhibition, in helping to create the “Diana” phenomenon. Those wonderful black and white photographs seemed to capture the heart and soul of Diana in a way many other photographs failed to, and I guess played a significant role in allowing the public to connect with her.
At times I felt a little teary walking around the exhibition, especially when I read the original text of her brother’s speech at her funeral, simply because of the humanity of her life. Other times I giggled at the silliness of it all, wondering why she was important at all. Although an important part of the lives of many people of my age for a variety of reasons, I wondered for a moment how this phenomenon would be remembered in fifty years time.