Dolls and Looking inside

Some time ago, on a cold wintry evening, I was chatting with friends over a warm cup of tea. After we had rambled about Archaeology, PhDs, paradigm shifts and other stuff like that, we turned our attention to important things: dolls. I do not exactly remember how we came to that, but that has no relevance here. What I found interesting is the thing which followed.

One of my friends said that he was faced with a very important task: buying the first teddy bear for his niece. She was old enough to get one, and so the gift was on its way. But here the problem started: what dimension and model should the bear be? And it was no laughing matter, because, as he told us, the teddy-bear should be that traditional toy which guards you and gives you a sense of security. Therefore, a too fluffy/plastic toy would not meet the criteria (too kitsch), a too big one would be scary and one too small would be inefficient. In the end, he seemed to have settled for a traditional Steiff model.

We often forget that engaging with dolls (and with any other object as a matter of fact) is a sensory endeavour, and size/shape/scale matters greatly. It is also a process which overlaps with certain “rites of passage” (as it was in this case- the proper age of playing with a Teddy bear). As Douglas Bailey nicely points out in his “Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and Corporeality in the Neolithic”, one way of looking at clay figurines (or Barbie dolls) is to think in terms of scale: how does the fact that one can manipulate (=dominate) these fragments of matter influence our feelings toward them? Is it all about us “playing around” with the world brought down to scale so that we can manipulate and re-configure it?

As the case of the teddy bear showed, there are multiple ways of thinking about/through dolls. My favourite are the following 3 examples.

1. A treasured collection

For those who do not know already, the V&A Museum has page dedicated to dolls and dolls’ houses. Until 1st of September they also host what sounds like an interesting exhibition, one dedicated to “treasured collections”:

many of us also collect, creating our own personal assemblage of significant objects, memories and keepsakes, which preserve our past and inform our future… The things we keep reveal much about what we consider ‘the important stuff’ in life. Objects can provide a way of holding on to an intangible memory…..A Treasured Collection is an exuberant and eclectic installation of ‘mini museums’ made with adults and children.” (

2. Dolls’ houses

When I think of dolls’ houses I think of Netherlands- in each and every museum you got to see plenty of dolls’ houses. I am not sure what would be a sensible explanation for that, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that  the whole country looks like one, with their “no shutters at windows” policy. This gives one the possibility to get a glimpse of the life of the people inside- just as one looking in a doll’s house.


This is one of the oldest preserved specimens, dates back to 1639 and is hosted in the Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany.

2. The violin shop


3. Ma’a’seh Toviyah (1708)

illustration from a Hebrew encyclopedia pairs the interior of a human interior with the interior of a house, a visual metaphor”


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