Branson ‘Diana’ exhibit stirs memories

30 Nov

Chris Stricker remembers the day Diana, Princess of Wales, died.
“I was at home and my husband opened the paper,” the 66-year-old Springfield, Ill., resident said, as she stared at a Cathrine Walker gown the iconic royal once wore.
The emotions of that August day in 1997 came rushing back, she said, as she remembered the death of her one-time role model.
“We didn’t know there had been an (automobile) accident,” Strickler said. “Then, my sister called. It was the saddest of days. So many people came to pay tribute and you realized how important she was.”
Deanna Graham, a 58-year- old St. Louis mother and grandmother, fondly remembered Lady Di as she wandered her way through the new Branson attraction, “Diana, The People’s Princess.”
“I loved her style and how down to earth she was,” Graham said. “I can remember how she was the day she died. She really was our princess, too. There will never be another. I loved Diana and wanted to see the dresses she wore.”
Designer dresses that Diana made famous, and more than 1,600 other items commemorating her fairytale wedding, children’s births, royal divorce and unexpected death, draw anglophiles to the Branson Exhibition Center, 3950 Green Mountain Drive.
The exhibit melds rare and one-of-a-kind items amassed by two longtime Diana collectors, Maureen Dunkel and John Hoatson.
Dunkel, who founded the People’s Princess Charitable Foundation, contributed the dresses to the exhibit, many of which were purchased at a charity auction only weeks before Diana’s death. Valued at more than $700,000 in 1997, many of the dresses are currently on display or will rotate through the exhibit.
Hoatson, Dunkel’s partner in the Diana exhibition, curates the attraction and owns the items dedicated to Diana’s life, charities, causes and tribulations.
‘Closure on her passing’
“The main thing we want to do here is make a human connection to Diana and what she gave to the world,” Hoatson said of his 20-year obsession with collecting Diana memorabilia. “It’s been very positive. A lot of people remember where they were in their lives with the wedding and the funeral and the divorce.”
He said time touring the artifacts and story boards and item descriptions gives people time to reflect.
“People remember Diana,” he said. “When people walk through they get a chance for closure on her passing.”
To recreate meaningful moments from Diana’s public and private personas, Dunkel and Hoatson divided her short life into several segments. The self-guided tour begins with a 20-minute video documentary detailing Diana’s good times and bad.
A room is dedicated to Althorp, then Lady Diana Spencer’s childhood home, where she now is buried. Visitors move from the Althorp room into a dark theater where video from the royal wedding plays on three screens and a piece of the royal couple’s wedding cake — autographed by Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother — is on display.
More than 750 million watched Lady Diana wed Prince Charles, the country’s future king. More than a billion watched worldwide as Diana was memorialized.
One part of the exhibit pays tribute to all things royal with items from Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and reign. Other items remind visitors of the great times Diana had with her children and the acclaim she achieved through her charitable outreach. Others bring back memories of marital betrayal and a loveless marriage.
The final room of the tour is dedicated to Diana’s memory and offers a guest book, in which visitors may jot down their thoughts. The room recreates the sea of flowers mourners left at the gates of Buckingham Palace in the days surrounding Diana’s funeral. The room stirs emotions in many visitors, Houtson said.
“We had a woman go through the exhibit, so touched that she started and finished in tears,” Houtson said, pointing out the guest book filled with condolences left by Branson visitors. “When they see it, it’s important to them in so many ways. It’s a unique exhibit. Her story is amazing.”

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