ROCHESTER, NY—Black Dolls, organized by the New-York Historical Society, explores handmade Black dolls through the lens of race, gender, and history. The exhibition—on view at The Strong National Museum of Play from September 23 to January 7, 2024—immerses guests in the world of dolls, doll play, and doll making while examining the formation of racial stereotypes and confronting the persistence of racism in American history. The Strong is the first to host the exhibit after the New-York Historical Society, and the museum will accompany the exhibition with Black Doll Designers—a complementary exhibit that looks at Black creators and contemporary Black dolls.
“The history of play provides a unique view into the history of America, and the handmade dolls in Black Dolls reveal difficult truths about the legacy of racism and slavery, while also reflecting resilience, pride, and creativity,” says Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, The Strong’s curator of dolls. “It’s important for The Strong to use the lens of play to examine these issues and generate important conversations about race.”
Black Dolls features more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff, commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and ephemera from New-York Historical and other collections. Period photographs from the Neff Collection provide important context. Starting with dolls that reflect the horrors of slavery, the exhibition moves through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dolls with detailed finery, often made from ingeniously repurposed sewing basket scraps, push back against negative racial stereotypes, while photographs that show white children playing with Black dolls and Black children holding white dolls complicate the narrative. The exhibition also depicts the rise of factory-made dolls and the growing emphasis on positive representation they embodied.
In addition to the dolls in the Neff Collection, the exhibit also includes three dolls by Harriet Jacobs, who escaped from slavery and physical violence. Jacobs made these dolls between 1850-1860 for the white children of the Willis family of New York, where she worked after her escape. Three dolls from the 1930s on display were made by Leo Moss, a handyman in Macon, Georgia, who repurposed commercial dolls by remodeling their hair, features, and facial expressions and tinting their skin with boot dye until they resembled himself, family members, or neighbors.
Also on view is Addy Walker, the first Black character that American Girl added to its collection in 1993 to educate young children about American slavery and emancipation. Addy’s braided hair and West African cowrie shell necklace are memorable symbols of Black culture. She is accompanied by her own cloth doll, Ida Bean, and a quilt that was modeled on an 1854 family album quilt by Black quilter Sarah Ann Wilson. The exhibition ends with a slideshow featuring photos of contemporary doll collectors, including one of artist Betye Saar with her collection.
Black Dolls is curated by Margi Hofer, New-York Historical’ s senior vice president and museum director, and Dominique Jean-Louis, formerly associate curator of history exhibits at New-York Historical. Black Doll Designers is curated by Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, doll curator for The Strong.
Black Dolls is presented in the Fidelis Care Gallery. Both exhibits remain on view at The Strong through January 7, 2024.
Opening Weekend Activities: During opening weekend at The Strong, September 23 & 24, hear story readings of Kim Howard’s Grace and the Box, use everyday objects to create your own doll or play pal, and bring your own play pal to the museum. On Saturday only at 11 a.m., learn more about the Black Dolls exhibit at an exclusive talk with Dominique Jean-Louis, co-curator of the exhibit. Also, on Saturday, hear about “Black Dolls and Social Movements in the American Toy Industry” at a panel discussion in the museum’s Paychex Theater.
About The Strong: The Strong is the only collections-based museum in the world devoted solely to the history and exploration of play. It is home to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the World Video Game Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, the Woodbury School, and the American Journal of Play and houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play.
About New-York Historical Society: Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new wing housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Tumblr