Image: Kensington Palace
Kirsty Wigglesworth  /  AP
A visitor looks at a dress worn by Princess Diana during a State Banquet for Egypt's President Mubarak, on display in Kensington Palace in London.
updated 3/26/2010 2:03:54 PM ET 2010-03-26T18:03:54

Princess Diana's former home, Kensington Palace, was being rebranded "The Enchanted Palace" on Friday to lure tourists from other popular London sights, like Madame Tussauds waxworks and the Tower of London, where the Crown Jewels are displayed (behind very thick glass).

In this interactive age, it's not enough for a stately palace to offer royal art, staid banquet rooms, and roped-off thrones, so curators have opted for fashion, performance art, and a bit of Alice in Wonderland fantasy. The exhibit, meant to draw viewers into the lives of past palace residents, uses intense lighting, actors and musicians to set the mood. One man even coaxes sound from a saw with a violin bow.

The tone is set by the Room of Royal Sorrows. No, it's not about Diana and her fractured fairytale marriage to Prince Charles; it's a dramatization of the emotional torment of Queen Mary II as she tried in vain a produce an heir. It is set in her bedchamber, giving the display an unsettling authenticity. On the bed is a figure of the queen, dressed in blue, face hidden.

"The first time you walk into the room, it has an aura of sadness, but also incredible beauty," said designer Marcus Wilmont, part of the team that decorated the room and came up with the outfit worn by the mannequin representing Queen Mary. "She tried really hard, but she had many miscarriages. She was a very loved queen, and we wanted to try to capture her spirit."

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The somber tone is set by dozens of antique glass bottles known as "tear catchers." In times of mourning, tears were put in the bottles "to catch the sorrow" even though they would soon evaporate, Wilmont said.

Visitors are given a chance to leave a handwritten note stating the last time they cried.

Not every display is laced with tragedy. One of Diana's elegant ball gowns is on display, and Vivienne Westwood, one of Britain's most revered designers, came up with a fanciful — and fantastic — dress designed to be worn by a rebellious princess.

The room where British kings met with advisers, foreign diplomats and occasionally the public has also been redone, with a colorful new throne that visitors are encouraged to try out. A Room of Enlightenment features a bust of Isaac Newton topped by a Stephen Jones hat that includes a mock red apple, covered with rhinestones, to commemorate Newton's moment of illumination.

The exhibit also includes The Room of Royal Secrets and the Rooms of Lost Childhood, all to evoke the bittersweet nature of real royal life as lived, not imagined. Many royals are portrayed as lonely and isolated despite the magnificent sweeping views of Kensington Gardens and the multimillion dollar art collection that lines the interior palace walls.

"We really wanted to try something completely different that gave us a way to take a fresh look at the palace's history and the lives of the people who lived here," said Alexandra Kim, one of the curators of the two-year show. "We want people to connect with the emotions."

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