The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I was obsessed with the Dolls’ House. The Smithsonian almost tossed it out.

The Dolls’ House, one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian American History Museum, is a little overstuffed, as a house with children tends to be. (Hugh Talman/Smithsonian American History Museum)

One of the most popular exhibits in the Smithsonian American History Museum is a five-story dollhouse in a glass case. It was the creation of a librarian named Faith Bradford, a serious collector of miniatures. Take one look at this home and its breathtaking detail — linen towels, little pets nosing around their little food bowls, 23 rooms — and you’re drawn in by its sharp, condensed drama. 

It is darling. It is busy. It is a little overstuffed, as a house with children tends to be. Life in the early 1900s is beautifully captured here, in an immersive experience that rewards close attention. Each of the little inhabitants — Peter and Rose Doll, their 10 offspring, visiting grandparents and servants — is engaged in some telling activity. Pigtailed Alice Doll peers out her bedroom window, with her cat on the sill, suggesting thoughts of . . . escape? Poised to leave the children’s bathroom, the chambermaid nonchalantly holds her bucket and mop in one hand: a strong, efficient woman.

Wonderful as it is, the Dolls’ House has faced eviction. The Smithsonian has had it on view, off and on, since 1951. But the house nearly fell victim to sexism.

“Most of the male curators at the museum rolled their eyes at the idea of such a display (although they did not object to the also-popular and large collection of toy soldiers),” states a Smithsonian Web page on problematic donations, “and tried on a regular basis to remove the collection from exhibition.” 

When you place those objections alongside its value as folk art, as a cultural and historic artifact, and the extraordinary scope of it, there’s a righteousness about this dollhouse. 

That’s how I see it now, anyway. Years ago, as a child, I was simply obsessed with it. I stood before it on the step provided for short visitors, studying its wee striped mixing bowls, its rugs and candlesticks (one in Alice’s room is shaped like an angel). In my mind I pulled the little chairs out from the dining room table; I hung out with Peter, the eldest Doll child, up in his room with his pet rats; I put words into all of their silent mouths. 

A little girl in a flowered coverall is doing the same thing when I visit the Dolls’ House one recent morning. She alerts her mother to the dog and cat in the laundry room, she wonders aloud about the loaves of bread lined up on the kitchen table. This display is fertile ground for the imagination, and it is irresistible. 

“Uh-oh,” says a man, stopped in his tracks. “Now that’s a dollhouse.” He gives it a once-over, walks on. His female companion stays; she’s been pulled into a relationship with it. 

“No TV in this house, hon,” she calls after him, leaning in, examining each room. 

A photo of Bradford’s sister, Mary, hangs in the dining room, above the fireplace. Another reminder of Mary is in the attic: amid the jumbled-up castoffs is a lamp with a missing globe. It is the only surviving piece of a collection of dollhouse furniture the sisters had when they were young — a reminder of the fantasies from which the Dolls’ House grew, of the cherished sister Bradford lost, and of her own solitude. She never married; she had no children. This is why she gave the house away. 

Bradford’s longings animate this remarkable exhibit just as much as her taste and expertise. Judging it as improper for a national museum is unimaginable. It makes one think about what else we may be looking upon now, with unconscious bias, as unworthy.

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Smithsonian American History Museum, 13th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.