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Providing Student News to Old Dominion University Since 1930

Mace & Crown

Providing Student News to Old Dominion University Since 1930

Mace & Crown

The Barry Art Barbie: Exhibitions of Dolls & Culture

Ash F.J. Thomas
#1 Barbie on display in Gallery 4 at the Barry Art Museum.

Walking into Gallery 4 at the Barry Art Museum, visitors are met with a display of fine art, carefully arranged for viewers to see every little detail. This art is a recent (and expensive) acquisition for the museum amidst a summer of hype for the subject. 


The subject in question? A mint condition, original #1 Barbie doll.


The Barbie doll was initially created by Ruth Handler for her daughter, Barbara, and then sold by Mattel for the rest of the girls of America. Although Barbie has been embroiled in a number of controversies in how she relates to modern feminism, the doll was revolutionary when she originally came out in 1959.


“When Ruth Handler created Barbie, she realized that girls didn’t necessarily dream about being mothers, they dreamed of being bigger girls. So, instead of another baby doll, she revolutionized the doll industry by giving them a lady,” reads the plaque on the side of the #1 Barbie doll display.


Gallery 4 is a permanent exhibition of dolls throughout history, all displayed in glass cases the way other museums display fine sculptures, with multiple plaques that detail the history of these dolls. 


“A cornerstone of one of our missions as a museum is to elevate the doll to the level of fine art,” said Suzanne Peterson, the Manager of Education and Engagement for Barry Art Museum.


Gallery 4 already contained a display of three other Barbie dolls: a brunette #1 Barbie from 1959, a blonde #5 Barbie from 1961 provided by Carolyn and Richard Barry III, and a Titian Ponytail Barbie from 1961 donated by Kim Wadsworth. But when the opportunity arose to acquire an original blonde #1 Barbie from 1959, Carolyn Barry wasted no time.


“There was so much demand that she had to really fight for it, but she felt like it was worth it because there was so much hype. It was a way of getting more people in to see the rest of her collection,” Peterson explained.


The #1 Barbie is wearing the Wedding Day #972 costume. Displayed behind her are three more original costumes from 1959: Easter Parade #971, Roman Holiday #968, and Gay Parisienne #964. The museum also bought an original Barbie Dreamhouse for display to lean into the hype of Barbie created by both Barry’s purchase and Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”


In addition to the Barbie exhibit, Barry Arts Museum is running “Fashioning Innovation: Madame Alexander At 100,” an exhibition of the dolls and history of Beatrice Alexander — another famous dollmaker in American history. Madame Alexander created the doll Cissy to symbolize an adolescent debutante, and released the doll in 1955, four years before Barbie. Barbie would eventually eclipse Cissy as the most popular doll for girls.


When discussing how the Madame Alexander exhibit relates to the Barbie displays, Peterson said, “As a museum, we’re trying to tell the story of what came first and what inspired what.”


The four Barbie dolls are a permanent addition to the doll exhibit. “Fashioning Innovation: Madame Alexander At 100” will run from Aug. 29 to Dec. 31, 2023. Admission to the Barry Art Museum is free, and guided tours are available every Saturday at 1 p.m.

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About the Contributor
Ash F.J. Thomas
Ash F.J. Thomas, Arts and Entertainment Editor
Ash F.J. Thomas is an English major working as the Arts & Entertainment Editor. Ash likes to review the many artistic events and exhibitions at ODU and the general Norfolk area. Outside of the Mace & Crown, Ash is passionate about creative writing, theater, and gaming.

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    Dr. Maria GriseSep 6, 2023 at 6:08 pm

    Informing, interesting and entertaining.
    Looking forward to reading more articles written by Ash F.J. Thomas.