“SMALL STORIES: At Home in a Dollhouse” features a dozen dollhouses spanning 300 years, and can be seen at the National Building Museum through January 22, 2017. That’s a long time, but note that it’s the only U.S. venue for these treasures from the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in London. So walk, don’t run, to the nearest exit, but do get there.
Given that the Victorians virtually invented the notion of innocent childhood, at least for a certain class of child, it makes sense that the V&A has a special fondness for these miniatures of domestic life.
The materials point out, however, that some of the earliest of these were more like cabinets of curiosities, commissioned by wealthy men so craftsmen could show off the wonders of the grand life their owners had fashioned.
The Tate Baby House, dating from 1760, was owned by the same family for 170 years, passed down from mother to eldest daughter. It includes original wallpapers and
Peggy Lines’ Dolls’ House. England, 1933-1936. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Whiteladies House is in the style of a Modernist country villa, and was designed by artist Moray Thomas in the 1930s. Here, a house party is in full swing, and the house features chrome furniture, a cocktail bar, and artworks by British Futurist Claude Flight as well as a swimming pool and garage.
The Hopkinson House was built in the style of London County Council’s 1930s suburb, the St. Helier Estate. The interior shows a World War II-era family in intricate detail, poised for an air raid, with miniature gasmasks, ration books and flashlights for the blackouts. The children are upstairs packing, preparing to be evacuated from the war-torn city.
But you won’t have to guess at the narrative of each house: There are buttons and lights that highlight the rooms and inhabitants and let you know what’s going on.
To move the story out of history and into the now, and even the future, the National Building Museum invited two dozen architects, designers and artists to imagine their own little interiors. Some resemble the assemblages of Joseph Cornell more than they look like, say, a living room; some are even more other-worldly. But they all honor the notion of life in miniature, a conceit that brings out the child in most of us.
“Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse,” National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001, 202-272-2448, www.nm.org. Through January 22, 2017.
Nancy McKeon is managing editor of MyLittleBird.com. You can read about her here.