Twelve historic dolls’ houses, spanning three hundred years of history, are on display in Small Stories: At home in a doll’s house at the V&A Museum of Childhood.
The exhibition reveals fascinating histories and tells intriguing stories: Who played with the houses? What do the dolls’ houses tell us about changing family relationships and everyday lives?
Marriages, Parties, Politics and Crime
Shown chronologically, exhibits show the changes in architectural styles and design over three hundred years from the Georgian era to the present day. The dolls’ houses range from intricately detailed Georgian town houses to high-rise apartment blocks and council estates. Over the past two years, the V&A’s conservation department has restored almost two thousand items specially for the exhibition, including houses, furniture and dolls.
Visitors press buttons to light up different characters and the small people who live or work in the dolls’ houses tell fascinating stories about family marriages, exciting parties, political plotting and criminal activities.
Every dolls’ house is rich in details from period wallpapers, carpets and furniture, to the minute toys in the children’s nursery.
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The Tate Baby House Shows Life in a Georgian House
The Tate Baby House, named after Mrs Flora Tate, its last owner, is typical of 18th-century town houses.
Dating from 1760, the house tells the story of three generations of Georgian women.
For the aristocracy in Georgian times, it was the house that demonstrated status and wealth, passing from father to son along with the family name. Women, however, were not entitled to inherit property other than ‘movable property’ including cupboards and clothing.
A miniature dolls’ house was the nearest they could get to owning a home of their own, and an aristocratic Georgian lady demonstrated her good taste through the furnishings she chose for the dolls’ house. On the rare occasions that children played with the dolls’ house it was under strict supervision.
The Tate Baby House has seen major renovation on at least three separate occasions. One of those changes saw Georgian windows changed to sash windows, much preferred by the Victorians. The stand the house sits on is an Edwardian addition. Not all the furniture is contemporary with the house, much of it being added during the various renovations.
The Hopkinson Dolls’ House Shows Britain During the Second World War
In the 1930s, a massive social housing building programme took place across Britain. Made by Roma Hopkinson (born 1931), this wooden three-story dolls’ house is an accurate representation of those built on council estates at the time.
Built in the late 1980s, the house shows all the paraphernalia of World War II.
In the Living Room we see Mr. Hopkinson, and his son, ready for an air-raid.
A tiny gas mark is visible by his feet.
Roma pays meticulous attention to detail giving us newspapers, miniature ration books, identity cards and torches to use in the blackout.
Also on display is a miniaturised copy of an original photo album, showing the family members as they appeared in the 1940s. Popular products, games, furnishings and foodstuffs tells about styles and tastes at the time.
In the bedroom we see Roma Hopkinson and her sister Nora, dressed in school uniform surrounded by their playthings.
The Kaleidoscope House – the Only Example of an American Dolls’ House in the V&A’s Collection
This is a most unusual dolls’ house. The Kaleidoscope House is part of a range of educational toys designed in 2001 by American artist, photographer, and filmmaker, Laurie Simmons, and New York architect Peter Wheelwright.
The three-storey house has multi-coloured translucent plastic walls with sliding doors for interactive play.
The furniture was specially designed for the house by notable contemporary designers including Ron Arad, Dakota Jackson, Barbara Kruger, Karim Rashid and Cindy Sherman.
In the double-height Living Room of the Kaleidoscope House we see a green sofa made by Karim Rashid for Idee of Japan. We can also see the kitchen which is part of the same living space.
Curator Alice Sage Speaks Exclusively to Decoded Past
Alice Sage joined the V&A as an Assistant curator in 2012. She has curated permanent gallery displays and her academic research has focused on women’s histories and emotional objects.
Decoded Past: As I understand it the V&A has more than 100 dolls’ houses, so what were your criteria for including some and not others?
Alice Sage: We wanted to show a big range so we opted for really grand, aristocratic houses like the Tate Baby House. We also wanted to show everyday life as most people would have lived it, so there’s the Box Back Dolls’ House and Jenny’s Home, which is a block of flats, as well as mass-produced dolls’ houses like the Kaleidoscope House. So even in these twelve that we’ve got, we managed to get a good range.
Decoded Past: Am I right in thinking that dolls’ houses like the Tate Baby House were really designed for the ladies of the house, and not for the children?
Alice Sage: Yes – I think of them as the equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities, so they were a way for people to bring their collections together to show them off to their friends. They’re like little treasure cabinets. The Tate Baby House has six doors that open individually, and each one has a lock and key, so that the very precious silver miniatures inside could be kept safe.
Decoded Past: During the preparation for the exhibition were you ever tempted to just sit and play?
Alice Sage: I did! Luckily, right at the beginning we had plenty of time to work out how we were going to display them. A lot of them have over 1,000 pieces of furniture that we narrowed down to two or three hundred items in each house. So that involved a lot of setting up scenes and working out how to dress the houses. That was a wonderful part of the process, and that’s how you get to know what’s in them, and you also feel a connection with the people who originally owned them because you get to lay things out and imagine how they would have done it. It was lovely.
Decoded Past: You must know these houses very well. What is it about them that appeals to you, and is there still more to learn?
Alice Sage: Yes, for example, in one of the houses there’s a tiny pair of slippers that were knitted with a single thread on a pair of knitting needles. The more you think about the time and effort that took, the more you learn about life in the 1830s. People had the time to sit and make these things. For lots of them the stories have been lost because women’s history isn’t recorded in writing in the way that men’s history is. Dolls’ houses can become almost a memoir or autobiography of those women, and then you have to piece it together from the material traces, which is what really appeals to me about them.
Decoded Past: Do you have a personal favourite?
Alice Sage: It changes every day, but I love Whiteladies House, that’s the one I’d love to live in if I could, because of the party atmosphere and how glamorous it is. They’re all having such a great time at the pool.
Decoded Past: Why do you think dolls’ houses retain their appeal in the 21st century?
Alice Sage: I think that the lives in miniature are just so captivating. The idea that you can create a room that maybe you would love to live in or you wish you had in your home. It gives you the opportunity to do things you could never do in full size, either because it’s not practical, or you could never afford it. It’s a very creative act, you’re creating a story, a little world. People love to do that in all different ways, and I think it’s an art form and a craft that people enjoy.
A New Interpretation of Old Favourites
Small Stories: At home in a doll’s house presents a fresh approach to, and new interpretation of, some old favourites. In addition to the twelve houses that make up the special exhibition visitors will also see a further twenty dolls’ houses, dating from 1673 to 2014, on display in the permanent galleries. Small Stories: At home in a doll’s house is a semi-permanent exhibition open until 6th September 2015.