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The Smithsonian Dollhouse


prariegurl
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As some of you know, I work in the library at Smithsonian Institution. Well, I just got the biggest thrill of my career here when I was invited today to a private viewing of the Smithsonian Dollhouse!

Currently its museum home, the National Museum of American History, is closed for a two year long renovation project and will not be open until this fall. The dollhouse has been taken off display and moved to the curatorial lab for conservation and cleaning. The curators have been working on it for two months, and have another week's work to do until they are done. A friend who knows the paper curator there told her about Courtney's dollhouse obsession, and secured a tour for Courtney and me!

The dollhouse was built in the 1950s by a man who generally built museum exhibits. The owner was a close friend of one of the curators, and that curator accepted the gift for the Institution. The dollhouse has been housed inside a plexiglass case since the 1960s, so this is the first time it has had a thorough cleaning in over 40 years.

Once it was out of its case, the curators discovered that the objects were glued in place. Research showed that the donator wanted the house displayed at Smithsonian exactly the way it was displayed in her home, so she used airplane glue to fix everything in place! No attempt was made to remove the glue, and objects that have come loose have been reglued with a modern airplane-type glue. Paper and other wood fiber objects were repaired and reglued using wheat paste. Fish glue was used to reglue textiles.

While some objects can be cleaned, most are too fragile for that. A computer vacuum, attached to a large canister vacuum using a converter hose, is used to vacuum dust and dirt off the objects. For objects that are too fragile for the vacuum, a paint brush with soft, natural bristles is used to loosen dust, and the loose dust is vacuumed from the brush and the area around the fragile object.

Some textiles have a deep texture and dust cannot easily be vacuumed from them. A makeup sponge is used to gently sponge off those textiles. They get these sponges by the gross, and the curator gave us a few to use on our houses. Painted objects, plastics, and other sturdier objects can be cleaned using a damp makeup sponge. Courtney and I were each allowed to try this by cleaning a window sill. Yes, we were allowed to get that close! We practically had our heads in the rooms to view the objects! Cotton swabs are used in crevisses.

The paper curator showed us some damaged areas, some they could repair, some they couldn't. Some of the straw flowers in the vases had fallen apart, but the objects people were able to fix them. The stack of books in the attic had collapsed. The paper curator, Linda Gilliland, repaired these using wheat glue. For many years, flourescent lights were mounted on the ends of the shelves, inches away from the objects. Linda lifted the corners of some of the rugs to show us how the light had faded them. The light caused fading on a maid's dress, and the butler's shirt has a tear, likely light damage. Sadly, these cannot be repaired. The flourescent lights will be replaced with fiber optic lights when the dollhouse goes back on display. This should be kinder to the objects.

Linda then took out a scrap book which was donated along with the collection. It traces the history of the collection from the 1890s to 1950s. Most of the objects were collected from 1890 through the 1930s, although some objects may be older. The furnishings are various scales and manufacturers, and some pieces are homemade. I was thrilled to see some hand knitted and crocheted objects. Many of the furnishings are by Tiny Toys.

The collection was arranged on book shelves until the lady had the dollhouse built, and there are photos of this. She then had the house custom built. She didn't want stairways because they took up precious display space that she needed for her collections. There are open doorways at the backs of most of the rooms, where you can glimpse objects in the hallways behind the house. What you see in those doorways is pretty much all there is in the back. Most of the hallways are unfinished, and this space is used to store Christmas decorations that were brought out for the season. The back panel lifts off for storage access.

At the end of the book are photos of a second large dollhouse, which was built as a modern 1950s house. And here's the surprise--Smithsonian owns this one, too! Only a fraction of Smtihsonian's objects are in the museums on the mall, most are in storage and research facilities off the mall, and so is the 1950s house. They aren't quite sure where it is, but they swear they still have it!

Anyway, I was so excited to get up close and had to share my visit with you!

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Wow, Jeri. I read your entry twice. First, you have a dream job to me. To work at a museum, and not just any old one- The Smithsonian. That is so cool.

And second, to be able to have a private tour of an antique dollhouse. That is so great and all you told us was so interesting,. I'm crazy about history and dollhouses so I was in heaven and living vicariously through your experience.

Thanks so much for sharing. Are there pictures anywhere of this particular dollhouse?

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i saw this dollhouse when i was a girl, kept the postcard for years. loved it. the dolls who lived in it were mother, father, grandparents, about ten children, and the servants. nice house, detailed, but not overly fancy.

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Wow! Awesome job - would have loved to have worked in the Natural History Museum there - and what an awesome dollhouse as well! Wonderful background as well. Fabulous!

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What an amazing experience. I have always wanted to go to the Smithsonian but haven't made it there yet. What a great job! What area of the museum do you work in? DJ

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Wow, what a great experience, and what a great job you have! Thanks so much for sharing with us.

Your explanation of how they cleaned and restored things would make a great tutorial. Even if it isn't exactly a tutorial, it does give tips on how the professionals do it.

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Your explanation of how they cleaned and restored things would make a great tutorial. Even if it isn't exactly a tutorial, it does give tips on how the professionals do it.

I'm sure they just told me the basics, but curatorially there isn't much to do on the house other than clean it. I described their methods in detail because I thought we could use those tips when caring for our own houses and miniatures.

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I LOVE the Smithsonian! I have seen that dollhouse, first time when I was 12. It's amazing.

The cleaning tuturial is excellent. That's something we can all use - much appreciated.

I've been back three times since I first saw the dollhouse, and I always make a beeline for it and for the following:

For all you wonderful doll makers, my favorite Smithsonian exhibit is the Noyes Collection. Jeri, I'll bet you know what that is. Mrs. Noyes commissioned Dorothy Heiser to make portrait dolls of European royalty, and the dolls are absolutely amazing. I'll scan and post pictures if anyone's interested in Henry VIII and his wives. The fabrics and the jewelry are all to scale.

A little known fact about the American History Museum: It's considered "America's Attic" and you can request a viewing of anything in the collection that is not currently on view. The Noyes Collection was in storage on my last visit, so I asked for a viewing of Henry and the Ladies, and actually got to handle the dolls (in their tissue paper wraps). The workmanship is just superb, and the dolls actually resemble the various characters in the Tudor melodramas.

What a wonderful job you have!! I can't think of a more interesting place to work.

Carol

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wowsers how interesting!!!

I too read your post twice just incase i missed anything :)

It was interesting to note that they clean it just as we would with nothing especially high tec

Thanks for sharing :) :)

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Pea green with envy but soooo happy that you shared this with us! I want to xome over for a visit as well as this dollhouse is sort of mythical in my ears...

THANK you for sharing it with us!

HUGS

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What an amazing opportunity! I hope to visit the Smithsonian some day soon, I'm sure it will take days to tour it all.

Thanks for sharing this information about the cleaning and restoration; it will be helpful to us all in maintaining what we work so hard to achieve with our houses. :)

Sheila

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thank you for the curatorial details.

For many years, flourescent lights were mounted on the ends of the shelves, inches away from the objects...the light had faded them. The light caused fading on a maid's dress, and the butler's shirt has a tear, likely light damage. Sadly, these cannot be repaired. The flourescent lights will be replaced with fiber optic lights when the dollhouse goes back on display
This is also why museums and galleries don't permit flash photography of items. One of the sad things about my visit to the Thorne Rooms was the damage the incandescent lighting had caused the mini drapes, etc.
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  • 14 years later...

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