THE FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM // Artifacts from a fallen princess

Published Sep. 21, 2004|Updated Jun. 20, 2006

A blockbuster exhibition of clothes, jewelry, home movies and other personal items belonging to Diana, the late Princess of Wales, is coming to the Florida International Museum in February, museum officials announced Monday.

"Diana, A Celebration," which includes the ivory gown and 25-foot train she wore at her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles, was assembled from the collection displayed at her family's ancestral home, Althorp.

The exhibition's only other tour stop will be the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, where it opens on Oct. 10 and runs through Dec. 31. After its stay in St. Petersburg, from Feb. 19 to May 22, the collection returns to Althorp in time for the summer tourist season there. In the past, the items have traveled to Tokyo and Canada.

Stories of the glamorous and doomed seem to sell well at the Florida International Museum. "Treasures of the Czars," about the last rulers of Russia, the Romanovs, who were slaughtered by revolutionary soldiers, drew more than 600,000 visitors in 1995. "Titanic," about the fabulous ocean liner that sank in the North Atlantic, attracted more than 800,000 people in 1997 and 1998.

And now comes the story of the woman who has riveted the world for more than two decades. Even after her death in 1997, in a car crash in Paris that also killed her companion, Dodi Al Fayed, and their driver, fascination from an adoring public has persisted.

Which is why, her brother said, he wants Americans to be able to see what his sister left behind, presented as her family thinks best.

"So much has been written about her," Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer, said in a telephone interview from Althorp. "People have a lot of information of the more fantastic kind and distortions of various things. I wanted to refocus people on her humanitarian side. (This exhibition) was needed and wanted by people. If we didn't do it, someone else would have and it would become tacky."

After her death, her family took possession of her personal effects, from which they chose a number of items for the show. Supplementing them are objects that illustrate the grand heritage of the Spencers, a family that has been part of the landed aristocracy in Britain for more than five centuries.

Some highlights in the collection of 150 objects are her wedding dress, family jewels including the Spencer diamond tiara, couture dresses and suits, ancestral portraits and home movies taken by Diana's father, the 8th Earl Spencer, when she was a child.

The princess' life was marked by scorching scrutiny from the time of her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981. She was pursued by the international press, especially the tabloid press, through a painful public divorce from the prince, and her life as a single mother and glamorous globetrotter was minutely examined. She used that celebrity to promote philanthropic causes, visiting AIDS clinics, leprosy hospitals, land mine fields and homeless centers throughout the world.

The show is a coup for the St. Petersburg museum, which has struggled for years to survive a huge overhead, debts and expensive, poorly attended exhibitions.

How the Diana show was booked here is a good example of knowing the right people at the right time. Dick Johnston, former head of the museum, visited Althorp and struck up a friendship with its manager.

He and other museum officials also knew John Norman, who organized traveling shows for Clear Channel Exhibitions but wanted to strike out on his own and formed Arts and Exhibitions International. Johnston hooked Norman up with the Spencers and signed a contract to develop the Althorp show for traveling.

Because Norman had already worked with the Fort Lauderdale Museum for a blockbuster show in 2003, "Treasures of the Vatican," he thought that was a natural venue for this exhibition. The Florida International Museum seemed a good bet as the second venue, as it is far enough from Fort Lauderdale to draw a different audience, Norman said, but close enough to make transportation easier.

Proceeds from the St. Petersburg tour stop will be shared between the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which donates all its portion to charities; AEI; and the Florida International Museum, said Kathy Oathout, director of the St. Petersburg museum. Oathout and Norman declined to discuss exactly how the proceeds will be shared. But because AEI provides all display materials and markets the exhibition, there is little financial risk for the museum, she said.

This will be the last show in the museum's current location before it moves to the building next door in July.

"Diana, A Celebration" takes up 10,000 square feet divided into galleries focusing on the Spencer family and Diana's childhood, the royal wedding, jewels, fashion, memorabilia from her funeral in Westminster Abbey and her humanitarian work. The largest section showcases 28 dresses, suits and evening gowns by designers such as Versace, Valentino, Chanel and Lacroix. (These are all different from the dresses displayed by a local collector at the Museum of Fine Arts several years ago.)

"There were many more," said Spencer. "We selected these to demonstrate Diana's developing fashion taste and to coincide with charitable moments," the benefits and fundraisers to which many of these were worn.

On view too are poignant reminders of her life before she became an icon: a school uniform, notes written in a childish scrawl, photos of her as a teenager.

The original text of Charles Spencer's moving funeral tribute to Diana, in which he took a swipe at the royal family's treatment of her, is also on display.

A gift shop will sell items commissioned by the Spencer family, such as small china dishes and boxes, picture frames, postcards, jewelry and a new book, Diana, A Tribute.

Charles Spencer said the seven years since her death have given him some needed distance. He has five children and lives with his second wife at the estate, taking care of its business, working as a corporate consultant and writing.

"It gets easier with the passing of time," he said. "I hope whatever Diana's place in history, there will be a respect for the good she did."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


Tickets for "Diana, A Celebration" go on sale Friday through Ticketmaster at (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100 or online at For group ticket sales, call Florida Group Tours at 1-800-995-6674 or order online at www.florida Admission is $19.50 for adults, $15.50 for seniors, students with ID and military personnel, $14.50 for groups of 15 or more, $9 for children, free for children 6 and under.


To see more images from the Princess Diana exhibit, go to the Times Web site at