How did three 11.5-inch blonde and blue-eyed Barbies circa 1991 find their way into Museums Victoria’s archive?
Alice Cannon, Museums Victoria Research Institute’s Manager of History and Technology Collections, tells Cosmos the Hawaiian Fun, Costume Fun and Fun to Dress dolls were originally acquired under the guise of ‘technology’.
“They weren’t collected from an individual. They don’t have a personal story connected to them. And they weren’t even really collected to talk about children’s play or aspects of childhood,” she says.
“It was much more about innovative manufacturing and how materials are changing in this aspect of our lives,” Cannon says.
The three dolls are the only Barbies housed in Museums Victoria’s extensive toy collection.
They were purchased for the opening of ScienceWorks, along with some Lego, marbles and a wooden train-set as part of an exhibition called ‘The Cutting Edge’, demonstrating changes in manufacturing techniques.
But having found their way into the collection, the dolls – just like any other artefact – are carefully stored in the museum’s archive along with their clothes, accessories and cardboard boxes.
The Barbies’ back story might sound unusual, but it turns out many toys find their way into the collection via unexpected pathways outside of Museums Victoria’s childhood collecting theme focused on documenting children’s lives, play and folklore, Cannon explains.
Some toys form part of a family’s story of migration to Australia. While others might contribute to the history of significant person. For instance, the collection associated with prominent Melbourne artist, migrant and restauranteur, Mirka Mora, includes a toy hedgehog, rabbit and a range of miniature doll’s house furniture.
“Childhood was one of [Mora’s] interests in her art. It’s a little selection of toys, that were more reference things when she was drawing and painting,” Cannon says.
There’s even an extensive collection of soft toys from Melbourne company Jakas, the makers of the teddy bear ‘Big Ted’ on ABC TV program Playschool.
When the toy company ceased production in the late 1990s, the museum acquired a number of its catalogues and locally manufactured soft toys. A range of stuffed teddies, Australian animals, penguins, rabbits, a couple of clowns and a pink, furry soft doll with a human baby face – were donated to the museum for posterity.
Cannon recalls stumbling across a cabinet full of the soft toys, in the early stages of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns when she was still able to go in and check on the stores once a week.
“We did a virtual tour for people to tune in over Zoom. I was getting ready for that, and opening random cabinets, and I opened the cabinet that was full of stuffed toys. It was fantastic – it made my day,” she says.
“I had to post a picture of that on the work Teams: ‘Found the cupboard that’s full of teddy bears!’.”
As a social history museum, sometimes curators will seek to deliberately record aspects of children’s lives. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the museum documented changes to children’s play – photographs of hopscotch drawn on the pavement, photographs of playgrounds that had been shut down.
The Barbies might have been bought brand new, and put on display fresh out of the box. But other toys arrive worn and well-loved, and the museum will try to preserve them in that condition.
“They might have bald spots, and splits, and signs of wear. We don’t necessarily want to change that, that’s part of their history […] we would like to keep them in the state they come to us,” Cannon says.
If they’re a bit dusty and dirty, staff might give them a bit of a brush vacuum. Or, if there’s signs of pests, the toys might spend some time in the freezer.
Museums Victoria’s three Barbies represent only the tiniest sliver of the famous doll’s 64-year history.
Since the doll’s launch in 1959, millions – if not billions – of Barbies have been manufactured, and it’s likely doll and accessory sales will experience a further boost with the release of the much-anticipated Barbie movie in July.
But when it comes to collecting toys its near impossible for a museums to be encyclopaedic, particularly given many are mass produced and designed to be played with, rather than kept for posterity.
“Everything that we have now, that’s in a museum […] it’s only ever a fraction of what existed. A lot of what survives is by chance – someone just happened to keep it relatively safe, it didn’t get chucked out, and it didn’t get destroyed in a fire or flood or something like that. We can’t really ever aim to collect everything,” Cannon says.
Plastic toys like Barbies can pose an additional challenge for museum collections, particularly as the chemical composition and manufacturing of the doll has changed over time. Plastic artefacts are prone to rapid deterioration particularly under light, but also due to heat, moisture and biological attacks.
So why collect and keep them?
“They’re not just cool toys,” Cannon says.
“We often find that we’ve collected an object for one reason and it turns out to be useful for all sorts of other reasons as well.”
Children’s popular culture – whether its toys, or comics or television shows – can unconsciously reveal aspects of society people might not think about at the time, and in ways which might be a more accurate reflection than, say, a university paper, Cannon says.
“I’ve often thought if you wanted to show someone the development of mobile phones, you should actually just make them watch the TV show Supernatural,” she says.
“Sam and Dean are always on their phones, and you can see the models change – that went for over a decade – but you can also just see how people used phones in a much more natural and organic way than if you were writing something very serious about mobile phone use.”
A collection of more than 260 items of toys, books and clothing from William Boyd’s childhood reflect an interesting time in the ‘40s and ‘50s when manufacturing was shifting from wood and metal into plastics and mass production, and from the cultural influence of Britain towards America.
“Things become clearer the further away you get from them. So, you can look back at collections like that and see all sorts of things about gender roles […] they’re predominantly toys that were made for a boy. And they’re reflecting things about the rest of life, so toy cars change with actual cars.”
So, while those three ultra-pink ‘90s dress-up dolls might seem frivolous today, who knows what future generations of museum curators and visitors might make of them?