Friday, 20 February 2015

SMALL-SCALE STYLE: DOLLS, DOLL CLOTHES, AND PROVENANCE

SEW WHAT?

BY: ANYA BAKER

There used to be a museum in my hometown of Fort Erie, Ontario called the Mildred M. Mahoney Dollhouse Museum. The museum was a historic home full of small-scale historic homes, either built and furnished by Mrs. Mahoney, or acquired by her. It closed in 2010, but, after being a fixture of the local museum scene for almost two-and-a-half decades, people still know the building by the museum's name, and tourists still ask directions to it, unaware of its closing.

As far as museums go, it was a bit unconventional. Labels were minimalist. The owner, Mrs. Mahoney, had built the collection privately over thirty-seven years, and had then secured the building to showcase and house all of the dollhouses. As a result, it was a collection of stuff that she had either made herself, or that she subjectively liked, presented almost as if they were art pieces in a gallery. It really was a collections-based space, with little attempt at storytelling or interpretation.

I was reminded of the Dollhouse Museum while on a tour of the City of Toronto Museums' Historical Collection last week. A recent acquisition to that collection was a pair of dolls from Eaton's, which were accompanied by a box full of handmade clothes.

Colour photo of a group of people standing in a room around a table bearing two dolls and some boxes; bookshelves line the wall behind them.
Neil Brochu (centre) talks about the two well-dressed dolls on the table at the City of Toronto Museums' Historical Collection.
Image credit: Anya Baker.
 I think a lot of people have dolls like these packed up in a box in their attic or basement. My family sure does--my mother's knock-off Barbie doll from the 1960s with matted hair, wearing a groovy shift dress that my grandmother made. The dolls at the Historical Collection are in much better condition, and have a truly spectacular wardrobe--they were obviously cherished and carefully stored. Taken as an example of period fashion, they are great distillations of whatever was popular and stylish at the time.

But more than that, they have a story attached to them. They have provenance! 

The two dolls and their box of clothes have a really cute story; all outfits were made in complementary pairs so that both dolls could be dressed alike, and there were particular outfits for special occasions like Christmas. But the connection of the mother to her child's dolls is of special interest to me; her artistry and sewing skills were very apparent in the outfits. Yet, this kind of domestic artistry is often overlooked or dismissed--ordinary clothing sewn for family members or playthings sewn or crafted out of scraps are not necessarily on the same level as wedding dresses and pocket watches in the public appreciation of heirlooms.

That provenance, and particularly, the connection of a maker to her handicraft, is so important to museum collections elevates domestic sewing to the level of art. In thinking back on Mrs. Mahoney's self-constructed collection--and her determination in showcasing it like art, without embellishment or contextualization--it is clear that she saw serious artistic value in her own domestic handicrafts. She owned dollhouses from all parts of the world and from many different time periods: the provenance of her pieces as being owned by her, whether self-created or acquired elsewhere, were what justified their inclusion in the museum space. Having museum spaces that prioritize the provenance of their collections gives the domestic sewing and crafting of ordinary women a space in which to be celebrated and recognized as historically important. 

A dollhouse from the Mahoney collection, up for auction.
Image credit: Plato Auctions, auctionsfind.com
The Mildren M. Mahoney Dollhouse Museum was as much about the personality and life of Mrs. Mahoney as it was about the dollhouses. Her contributions to her own collection, her careful artistry over the years, and her commitment to preserving what she had built as a non-professional artisan and self-guided collector endear her to me, at least, as someone with a keen sense for what make museum collections important and valuable.

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