There are few things more emblematic of England’s heritage than the great country houses that grace our landscape. Designed and built as a showpiece for seventeenth-century craftsmanship, Sudbury Hall boasts many interior features, which provoke inspiration and admiration. But it is an exhibition of black dolls that leads me to explore this historic country home of the Vernon family.
The National Trust Museum of Childhood, an immersive experience which invites nostalgia, reflection and conversation across generations, is housed in the nineteenth-century servants’ wing of Sudbury Hall. Situated in this space, where stories are brought to life by displays of objects and media, is an exhibition called Black Dolls: The Power of Representation. The National Trust have joined forces with the National Caribbean Heritage Museum, also known as Museumand, to launch an exhibition exploring black dolls through the twentieth and 21st centuries. Museumand was set up to commemorate and celebrate the Caribbean contribution to life in the UK.
The exhibition is aimed at all ages and communities, including families. It features both historical and contemporary dolls from the Museum of Childhood’s unique collection. On display are dolls from a range of countries and girl, boy and adult dolls in a variety of fabrics and materials; from antique and vintage dolls to 21st-century examples including the controversial golliwogs of the past and today’s black Barbies. Alongside this are black dolls and children’s books from Museumand’s own collection, from both Britain and the Caribbean.
Catherine Ross, Founder and Director at Museumand and her daughter explain: “We’ve put together this exhibition to help all communities discover what life was like for black children growing up in Britain through the ages.
“Black dolls are part of our shared history and cultural heritage and through the exhibition, we’re keen to discover how both black and non-black children experienced them, and their effect on childhood.”
Black dolls have often caricatured and misrepresented black people, reflecting attitudes and cultural stereotypes of the time. Mention of Robertson’s golliwog, Black Jack sweets, Noddy and the story of Little Black Sambo are among the exhibits. The backdrop to this must be considered. We are now in a climate where academics, historians and students are calling for the decolonisation of museums and the repatriation of objects.
There is an increasing call for museums to acknowledge their colonial past and power. More recently the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Cleo Lake, ordered a portrait of the slave trader Edward Colston to be removed from her office after deciding she could not share her working space with the painting. Lake is a member of the Countering Colston campaign group, which challenges what it sees as a celebration in Bristol of the slave trader’s life. Lake explains: “Many of the issues today such as Afrophobia, racism and inequality stem from this episode of history where people of African descent were dehumanised to justify enslaving them.”
While airbrushing history is not the call – how and what museums share and how they are interpreted must be challenged and discussed in light of new connections that are being unearthed between the nation’s great houses and its colonial past – I wonder what is the intention of this exhibition. According to Museumand, the exhibition of black dolls has opened with the intention of "shocking" but also "informing" some visitors.
But do exhibitions like this send out mixed messages about museums’ values today?
Black Dolls: The Power of Representation explores how black people are represented by dolls and characters in children's books, and the impact this can have. It invites visitors to leave their comments through the interactive elements of the exhibition. Visitors are encouraged to leave a response to a number of prompts, for example, one prompt asks: “How can black dolls and characters be used positively to empower ALL children?” The responses were wide ranging and inscribed on post-it notes were comments such as:
“By NOT being just BLACK!!!”
“Loved the story of little black Sambo as a child in the 1940s and I still do largely because he was clever enough to outwit the terrifying tiger, a real hero to emulate,” signed in parenthesis, a Caucasian aged 79.
“Racism is stupid people need to grow up and accept that difference isn’t wrong.”
While the exhibition’s intent is to inform and shock, the answer to how this changes attitudes should also be a central part of the dialogue.
Black Dolls: The Power of Representation exhibition is part of the Heritage Lottery Fund supported Exploring Childhoods’ project, and is showing at Sudbury Hall until Sunday 4 November 2018.