One of the scariest books that I remember reading as a kid was a supernatural mystery involving a haunted dollhouse. A family moved into a gloomy old mansion and found an antique dollhouse (an exact replica of their new home) in the attic. At first the little girl played happily with it, but began to notice lights on the attic room of the dollhouse at night. And no matter where she left the dolls before bed, when she woke up in the morning, they were always arranged in a macabre tableau – with one of the dolls in a crumpled position at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t recall all of the details, but the gist of the story was that someone had been pushed down the stairs and the murderer was never brought to justice. The creepy paranormal “clues” provided by the dollhouse and its inhabitants eventually brought the truth to light.
I had haunted dolls on the brain as we explored dimly lit rooms at the Toy & Miniature Museum of Kansas City. I felt the painted eyes of porcelain beauties following me, and my eyes were drawn in morbid fascination to tiny staircases, where I half expected to see the scene of a crime.
My 5 year old seemed immune to the spook factor. He ran around in a constant state of excitement, pointing out oddities and peering through dollhouse windows into the miniature self-contained worlds.
The museum’s collection is fascinating. The largest dollhouse stands nine feet tall and at one time may have had gas lights and running water! Victorian era dollhouses were used as teaching tools to prepare wealthy girls for their roles as wives and “household managers,” so a variety of domestic servant dolls are on display.
In addition to the dollhouses, the museum has antique toys of every variety: wind ups, trains, teddy bears, puppets, etc. There are also modern miniatures, astonishing in their detail and scale. The craftsmanship and artistry that must be involved in creating miniatures (some so tiny that they can only be viewed through a microscope!) boggles my mind. Upstairs there is an enormous display of marbles, a case full of Star Wars memorabilia, and a temporary exhibit chronicling the history of Barbie. It’s the kind of place you could could spend hours exploring and return to find something new again and again.
My husband commented that as you move through the museum’s collection, the toys become more commercialized. The soulful eyes of chipped china dolls on the bottom floor are in sharp contrast with the homogenized sex appeal of made-in-China Barbies on the top.
My only complaint is that the museum doesn’t allow photography. Ostensibly, they prohibit photography to protect the exhibits, but I don’t see how a digital camera with flash off would harm anything. Surrounded by the bizarre and the beautiful, I was itching to look through my lens. I respected the museum’s policy and only took photos when we were outside or in the lobby. Despite clearly posted signs, I saw plenty of other visitors snapping photos left and right (I am including a few of these renegades’ photos below, courtesy of Flickr).
The Toy & Miniature Museum of Kansas City is located on the UMKC campus in a renovated/expanded 1911 mansion (built for successful local doctor Herbert Tureman). I don’t know if the Turemans ever commissioned a dollhouse replica of their elegant home, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one turns up some day in a forgotten attic corner, dusty and determined to tell its stories to the world.
Notes: The museum considers their collection most appropriate for ages 5 and up. I think younger kids (3+) would enjoy it, as long as they have a firm grasp of the “look but don’t touch” concept. The Barbie exhibit will be on display through July 4, 2011.
Following Photos By Chris McGillicuddy:
Following Photo by Amber Cox: