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How Prince Invented Himself. Over and Over.

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.

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Prince’s “Orange Cloud” guitar, a creation intended for his 2007 Super Bowl performance but not used there.

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Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

“The exhibit is an exploration of these iconic moments,” said Angie Marchese, director of archives at Paisley Park and the curator of the O2 show. “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.

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The cloud-patterned suit Prince wore in the 1985 music video for “Raspberry Beret,” also in the exhibition.

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Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

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.

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More costumes and images from “Purple Rain,” Prince’s quasi-autobiographical movie.

Credit
Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

“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.”

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Prince memorabilia, from left: His 2014 “Art Official Age” album; the “third eye” sunglasses inspired by the record, from the brand Coco and Breezy; and jewelry with his symbol.

Credit
Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

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.”

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