An Afternoon At The Doll Museum

The doll’s museum is full of mirrors, and first you see yourself, distorted, as you stoop to the woman behind the desk and pay your dues. It seems odd, somehow, to see yourself in here- it is odd that you are in here, no seeming about it. It is an odd place, and you are so much the odder for being in it. But here you are, and you pay your dues[1], and in you go, and there you are.


I hand over a ten euro note, and wait for my change. The woman behind the desk eyes me with something approaching suspicion, and I eye myself in the mirror behind her head with the same look. Why are you here this afternoon?


I’m not sure why I’m here, other than that my room-mate, my best and only friend in Paris, is away; other than that I have the afternoon off from work; other than that, as a little girl, I had a dolls’ house I loved more than almost anything; other than that I saw the sign behind the Centre Pompidou, and having nothing else to do, I came.


It’s a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of March, and it’s kind of grey outside, not hot, not cold, and I have nowhere to go, except, maybe, the doll’s museum. I have never even seen the sign before- part of me, well versed in stories, thinks maybe it never existed before.


It wouldn’t be out of keeping, really, with the way this museum feels.


There are, as I’ve said, mirrors everywhere; mirrors, yes, and eyes. Most of the eyes are set in heads of various porcelain sizes, but not all of them. An elderly lady in a hat is kneeling by a drawer full of glass spheres, some blue, some brown, fingering them reverentially. It feels a little bit like a church, and the people here speak in whispers. It bears no resemblance to the light and space of the Centre Pompidou, across the road; this museum is a warren of little rooms, lit from inside the cases with that fluorescent strip lighting they use in roadside bathrooms.


You don’t matter, here; this museum is not about you, and how you feel about it. This museum is about the dolls. There are- and this is going to sound obvious- thousands of them. Thousands of them in glass cases, and teetering suicidally above the cases, hooked to the walls, from smaller than my thumbnail to child-size, human-size. Life-size dolls, staring under their yellow lights. It’s uncannily easy to catch their eye and end up in some ungodly staring contest. You know that you’ll lose, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant when you have to blink. There is a Doctor Who episode[2] where blinking gives the monsters the chance to attack. The monsters in that were statues; these dolls (and the occasional stuffed animal) are even worse.


It’s the vaguely humanoid features that does it, I think, the way they are almost, but not quite, like us. It’s the parenthical noses, the lower lashes spidering across the cheeks, the hands held stiff and out in front as if either waiting, or reaching, and it’s hard to tell which would be worse.


In the first room there are dolls having a lesson. The teacher doll is no bigger than the student dolls, and they are all made of flawless porcelain, except one boy doll with a jagged crack down one cheek. The little label glued underneath tells me that he is the “cheeky boy in this class”. It is, maybe, possible to discern a hint of painted betisme in his smile, and anyway, they have positioned him as if he is dropping a pile of little books.


The little books are in English and in French, and they are dictionaries. Joie de vivre, I read.


Next, there is a case full of dolls singing to a little piano, their rosebud lips parted, their hands frozen in appreciation of the music. One of them has a xylophone, and I couldn’t tell you what it is about the little xylophone that sends shivers down my spine.


I hurry out of that room, avoiding the gaze of the life-sized bear riding a tricycle, and find myself mid-beach-scene.


Along one wall, behind glass, are piles of sand, and shells. I think, suddenly, that the shells are the realest thing in the whole museum, and half a second after I wonder what is real, anyway, and I feel like I’m reading the Velveteen Rabbit all over again, only far, far less comforting.


The shells are bigger than the hands of the dolls.


Above the beach scene, in what is I suppose meant to be the sky, are green boards, and on them, are strung up a good thirty naked baby dolls, lashed at the neck and ankles with twine. It looks like a butcher’s shop. They are in order of skin tone, which means, effectively, two and a half boards of yellow, and half a board of dull mahogany. You could move the entire display to the Centre Pompidou and call it a discussion on race, and I doubt anyone would notice.


Once you start thinking about race, at the doll’s museum, it is difficult to stop. There is an entire case labelled “ethnics and exotics”, with one astonishingly beautiful Asian-eyed big doll in Japanese dress. Surrounding her, though, are smaller, stranger things; the kind of caricature that could easily emerge mid-nightmare. The noses are disproportionate, the mouths carved as one with the over-sized flutes, and the eyes cut into the pin-prick heads, like lines; this case is the living[3] embodiment of ‘the Other’. The terror it creates is almost palpable, and the children in the museum[4] hurry past it without looking even at the beautiful Japanese girl-doll.


In another room a black baby and a white baby, thumb sized, are stripped to the waist and glued to skateboards. The caption says that when wound up, they fight, but declines to say why; this, at least, explains the boxing gloves, but leaves me none the wiser as to its origins.


By the room that is late fifties, the “ethnic and exotic” dolls are allowed into the cases with the other dolls, which is nice for them. They are only allowed in if they have the exact same face-moulds as the white dolls, but, you know, progress is progress.


The rest of the black dolls in the museum are golliwogs and harlequins, and one papier-mâché folie, beharlequinned and losing facial features to the ravages of time.  There is a board game called Les Negres Virtuouses, and the aim of the game appears to be to separate the good, musical Negres  from the bad, thieving Negres.


I wonder if the little girl next to me, all beaded braids and hot pink raincoat, has noticed. Her mother has. I feel the creeping shame of privilege on the back of my neck, and turn my attention to another case.


Some of the dolls in here are ragged with love- half-naked, bald patches, blind in one eye- and some are pristine. I can’t decide which is better, or which is worse. ‘Lulu’, from Germany, is in her original trunk, and her outfit changes are pinned up to the lid; ‘Colin’ and ‘his sister Colinette’ have obviously never been taken out of the box.


That said, I wouldn’t touch Colin or Colinette if you paid me, despite the fact that they “walk all by themselves!”. Colinette, sporting a flowered house-dress, looks for all the world like a blowsy, gin-soaked house-wife, in the last vestiges of middle-aged-spread, bitter and malicious. Colinette would tell your mum if you accidentally trod on her flowerbed and Colinette would tell your mum if she thought she saw you hanging out with the bad girls on the street corner, even if it wasn’t you at all she saw. Colin might even be worse: all belted blue pyjamas and downcast smirk, like some parody of a gay Hugh Hefner. Frankly, the thought of either of them “walking all by themselves” fills me with dread. I’m glad they are behind glass.


I’m glad the clowns are behind glass, too. They are from Germany, and hang suspiciously from wires, grimacing over a toy theatre ominously titled MASSACRE, which, yes, doesn’t mean what you think it means but is quite enough to give my English eyes a touch of what DFW called the ‘howling fantods’, DLS called the ‘screaming ab-dabs’ and what we at home call the H-J’s, the heebie-jeebies.


The museum itself, actually, seems to be predicated on giving one the heebie-jeebies, and I sit in the little ante-room[5], trying to work out exactly why. It’s not just the stacks of heads on springs, or the teddy bears slit unerringly accurately straight from ear to thigh, or the dolls with rhinoceros-heads. It’s not just the uncut paper dolls of Polichinelle, or the endless parade of half-dressed and faded Arlequins. It’s not just Colin and Colinette, or the uneasy racial caricatures. It’s not just the mirrors-not just the eyes- not just the coils of what appears to be coarse black hair in the corners of some of the cases. It’s not just the dark, or the whispers.


It’s all those things, and the fact that you’re here. The fact that you paid to come in here, and the fact that, when it comes down to it, you’re not sure why. It’s the fact that you’re not sure how to explain your afternoon to your room-mate, or your employers. It’s the fact that you’re sure you’ll try, because you’re sure that you’re not going to forget easily the way you felt staring into the giant glass eyes of the stuffed bear.


It’s the fact that you’re here, and in the mirrors, and the eyes, you can see yourself, watching, and the dolls, watching, and you’re not sure who, really, is watching who.


After all- and there, there’s the rub- the dolls never blink.




[1]  (€6 for students, two less for children and two more for grown-ups)

[2] – strangely enough, titled Blink

[3] Ha ha ha.

[4] Not as many as you might think, actually; the target audience for the doll’s museum appears to be strange elderly people in shabby but expensive coats, and raggy headscarves. Nobody seems to be here on purpose.

[5] Which, by the way, has a temporary exhibition about paper dolls, which boasts some fairly exciting English-translated labels. I don’t remember the last time I heard “divulgated” in a sentence.