North Central: Local Museum Prepares for Doll Show

Dolls displaying the ceremonial dress of the Ndebele women of South Africa were often given to girls about to enter adulthood.

From antique collectibles to celebrity look-alikes, the specimens on display at the Philadelphia Doll Museum encompass hundreds of years of history in the span of space of one row home in North Philadelphia.

Executive Director Barbara Whiteman explains the history of black dolls in different cultures.

In one nook, dolls with tall, cone-shaped bodies stand regally, adorned with beads and colorful cloth. These dolls, circa 1960 according to their placard, display the ceremonial dress of Ndebele women of South Africa, and were often given to girls entering adulthood. Along the left wall, 26 historical figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass stand poised as if waiting for a photographer to take a group shot of these notable icons. And across the room, there’s television show character Steve Urkel, grinning and staring through his nerdy glasses as if about utter the nasal-voiced query, “Did I do that?”

The celebration of black dolls has been part of Philadelphia’s history for decades. As for the past 21 years, this city hosted the annual International Black Doll Show at the Philadelphia Convention Center on May 29. Barbara Whiteman, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia Doll Museum, has been preparing for yet another year’s exhibition after participating in the show for the past 20 years.

“It feels great because you find people who have come to every doll show, so we have all grown together,” she said. “It is a network of doll collectors.”

Employee Elizabeth Mann points out traditional South African dolls of the Ndebele people.

Whiteman, a resident of the 700 block of South Warnock Street, said she began collecting black dolls about 20 years ago. For the first 10 years, she kept them in her former West Oak Lane home. But after accumulating so many, she moved them to their current location at 2253 N. Broad St., where more than 300 dolls are available for viewing. “Our only problem is, we don’t have enough room to show all dolls we have,” she said. “We have close to 1,000.”

The Philadelphia Doll Museum is sponsoring the doll show, but Whiteman says at least 30 exhibitors will be attending to show and sell their dolls. It takes most of the year to plan, which the museum does by notifying different collectors and sending out mass mailings, she said. The result is a mix of artists and enthusiasts from across the country. “We have doll artists from all over, from California, from Michigan, from Florida, and men as well as women doll makers,” Whiteman said.

When deciding which dolls she wants to bring to the show, Whiteman said she thinks about what other exhibitors will bring and then tries to choose something different to contribute to diversity within the show. Not only do the dolls serve as display or sale items, they also function as learning tools.

Dolls displaying the ceremonial dress of the Ndebele women of South Africa were often given to girls about to enter adulthood.

“People can see how particular cultures represent themselves through dolls,” she said. “It opens up their awareness to history and gives them a sense of social awareness as well.”

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