In 1996, the rock star Prince released the album “Emancipation,” his first record since the end of a rancorous contractual dispute with his label, Warner Bros. In a change for an artist typically wary of the press, he promoted the album by conducting interviews at Paisley Park, his private estate and production complex.
Closed to the public and hidden away in Chanhassen, a suburb of Minneapolis, Paisley Park was largely inaccessible, which lent it an air of mystery. The reality was inevitably less fantastical, but touring the site as an invited journalist for the release of “Emancipation” still made for a giddy experience.
I was shown around recording studios, rehearsal spaces and the massive soundstage where Prince practiced for concert tours. In one room, three seamstresses sat surrounded by sketches and fabric swatches, stitching his extravagant outfits. There was even a nursery decked out with soft toys and cloud-patterned walls: Prince and his wife at the time, Mayte Garcia, were expecting a baby, but the infant died shortly after birth.
More than 20 years later, I still think of my visit as a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the life of a unique artist.
Today, a trip to Paisley Park is no longer such a rarefied endeavoor. After the death of Prince from an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl in April 2016, at the age of 57, the complex was opened to the public. You can tour the studios and gaze at some of the many costumes and musical instruments that once belonged to the star. Last week, “My Name Is Prince,” an exhibition of items selected from the Paisley Park archive, also opened at the O2 concert arena here.
The show is a crowd-pleasing display of memorabilia that nods to the many high points of Prince’s career: There are a purple trench coat and a ruffled shirt from the 1984 film “Purple Rain”; nearby, a cloud-patterned suit from the 1985 video for “Raspberry Beret.” In one vitrine, you can find an annotated sheet of lyrics from the album “1999”; in another case, the “Orange Cloud” guitar that was designed (but not used) for his thrilling 2007 Super Bowl halftime performance.
“The exhibit is an exploration of these iconic moments,” said Angie Marchese, director of archives at Paisley Park and the curator of the O2show. “It’s about who he was as an artist, and what he meant to everybody.”
Few recording artists were as acutely conscious of their images as Prince, or as dedicated to presenting themselves with such teasing complexity, as the show attests.
“There were a multitude of versions of this person, artistically, visually, fashionably, the instruments he played, the kind of music he made,” said Ben Greenman, author of “Dig if You Will the Picture,” a recent book on Prince.
With each album he released, Prince transformed his visual identity. The pompadoured rock god of “Purple Rain,” for example, was followed by the beatific flower child of “Around the World in a Day” and the louche sensualist of “Parade.” Each record carefully maintained its own distinctive color scheme, most obviously with “Purple Rain,” but also with the peach-and-black palette of “Sign o’ the Times” and the black, white and red of “Lovesexy.”
“Every album has its own feel,” Mr. Greenman said. “His iconography, his typefaces, his own name — there was an extreme level of calculation there.”
On the cover of one of his earliest albums, “Dirty Mind” (1980), Prince offered a sexually charged, ambiguously gendered persona, complete with a thong and thigh-high boots. He continued to blur apparent boundaries between male and female, straight and gay, chaste and libidinous, through much of his career. In the song “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” he conjured a high-voiced alter ego called Camille to explore sexual desire from a woman’s perspective. And, in 1993, he famously changed his name to the unpronounceable Love Symbol, a fusion of the signs for the masculine Mars and the feminine Venus.
“He definitely wanted to present an air of mystery,” said Steve Parke, Prince’s former art director. Mr. Parke worked at Paisley Park for six years, designing record covers and also acting for a time as the star’s official photographer. Prince, he said, “could be a goofball, just making faces and being ridiculous during a shoot.”
“But we never kept any of those photos,” he continued. “He wanted to be seen seriously.”
But can any display of memorabilia offer meaningful insight into the life and work of a figure as multifaceted as Prince? Or does it risk consigning him to the same category of commodified celebrity as Elvis or Dolly Parton, whose homes have become popular tourist destinations? (The question is pertinent: Public tours of Paisley Park and the London exhibition are organized by P Park Management, which is overseen by Graceland.)
“I think there’s a fine line often crossed between museums and theme parks when it comes to pop culture properties,” Mr. Greenman said. “You can have a very sensitive, highly annotated, extremely nuanced presentation of an artist’s work, and that’s a museum. Or you can have a for-profit display of those objects, and that risks being theme park. That’s the danger.”
Mr. Greenman said the best way to memorialize the star was intangibly, “through the music primarily.” Yet Prince himself seemed to have been acutely aware of how physical objects could burnish his exalted status.
He may, in the end, have been his own most dedicated archivist. To date, over 8,000 artifacts have been cataloged at Paisley Park, a figure that represents only a tiny fraction of the star’s accumulated possessions.
“He definitely was conscious of a legacy,” Mr. Parke said. “Anything that was around was stuff he held onto on purpose. His outfits, his instruments, his changes of guitar, they were all reflective of his artistry evolving.”
Even the decision to transform Paisley Park into a tourist site turns out to have been premeditated. “It’s not like this idea came out of nowhere,” Mr. Parke said. As far back as the mid-90s, “he and I had a conversation about him eventually wanting Paisley Park to be a museum.”
Having spent his life in the public eye, Prince rarely stood outside his own image. Late at night, in the privacy of Paisley Park, he might be “a little more relaxed” and swap high heels for slippers, Mr. Parke said. But otherwise, he added, “he looked exactly as you’d expect him to look all the time. He was dressed, his hair was done, he had the makeup on, the eyeliner. It was a very conscious choice on his part to present a look, to say, ‘This is who I am.’ He definitely felt he had to have that veneer of Prince at all times.”