Sept. 26, 2012 08:43

High Point doll museum packs it in

Shirley Temple collection credit Jordan Green

BY JORDAN GREEN
jordan@yesweekly.com

The most prevalent emotion felt this week by the staff and volunteer board members at the Doll & Miniature Museum of High Point is sadness.

After 20 years, the museum will close its doors for good on Saturday.

“One thing I’ve enjoyed about the museum is meeting people from all over the United States and other places,” said Margaret Starrett, an employee who has worked at the museum for about 15 years. “I’m very sorry it has to close. We get doll collectors and lots of children here. Everybody is amazed by our collection of dolls.”

The doll museum is repository for a lifetime passion for collecting by Angela Peterson, a West Virginia native chose High Point as a place to retire in 1979 following a career as a military recreation director and travel. The dolls and miniatures in the collection reflect the period in which Peterson lived, from 1902 to 2000; her interest in international cultures; the high period of doll-making in France and the United States, Germany and Japan in the late 19th century.

Now, more than a decade after Peterson’s death, the museum has become a victim of the ongoing economic downturn, board member Robin Wyatt said, as foundations and philanthropist reprioritize their funding to address the most acute needs.

“It’s very sad, but it’s a sign of the times,” said Wyatt, a Concord resident who was at the museum last Friday to work on finding new homes for the dolls. “I’m one of the few doll collectors on the board. I’ve seen ’em closing all across the United States, so this wasn’t too much of a surprise.”

The board wants to keep as much of the collection in the High Point area as possible, and the High Point Historical Museum is one of the institutions that has been confirmed as a recipient for some of the items. As much as possible, the board wants to ensure that the dolls are displayed rather than kept in storage.

“We’re still in a lot of negotiations,” Wyatt said. “We’ve got some valuable pieces, and everybody wants them. We as a board have to decide where the best home is for them.”

Considering the centrality of home furnishings to High Point’s economic viability and cultural identity, the blow from the loss of the doll museum is compounded: Dolls, of course, begot dollhouses and the elaborate miniature furnishings that give them the fantastic illusion of real life.

For example, the Serta Miniature Bedrooms Collection, created by the mattress manufacturer, showcases the bedrooms of ruler through the ages beginning with King Tutankhamun of Egypt, circa 1340 BC. The curved bed at a slight slant topped with bug netting is perhaps the most aesthetically interesting by modern standards, compared with the private chambers of Czar Peter the Great, King Louis XIV and Queen Elizabeth.

A visit to the doll museum makes it clear to the neophyte just how rich and varied the practice of doll-making and collecting is. There are play dolls that are durable and made for small children — and those are certainly represented in the collection — but the more involved end of the spectrum includes replicas that commemorate notable historic figures or capture a certain time period or place.

An exhibit marked “Israeli trio” includes a man with a Torah and a woman lighting a Sabbath candle in traditional garb. Diana, Princess of Wales and First Lady Michelle Obama, arranged together, are appropriately regal. The Shirley Temple collection attests to the long-running popularity of the child movie star with representations from the 1930s through the 1990s. A set of prominent African-American historic figures includes Sojourner Truth, Madame CJ Walker and High Point native son John Coltrane.

Other showcases shine a light on cultural, racial oddities and technological developments: There are boudoir dolls made to rest on the beds of French ladies, “topsy turvy” dolls with white or black heads depending on which way you flip the skirt, dolls made of wood, papier-mâché, ceramic and celluloid.

The exhibit on celluloid dolls reveals that they were sold to children from 1869 to the 1940s and manufactured from an early form of man-made plastic. They had the advantage of being durable and lightweight, but they “burned or exploded if placed near an open flame or heat.” The dolls’ “hard, shiny complexions” were reportedly unpopular with children, and they were banned by the US government in the 1940s.

All of that history and culture, assembled in one place, will soon be boxed up and divided into other collections — hopefully displayed, but the risk is always there that these valuable artifacts will spend decades buried in storage.

“I am sad to see it close,” Starrett said. “I think it’s been a great asset to High Point.”

WANNA go?

The Doll and Miniature Museum of High Point, located at 101 W. Green Drive, is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then closed for good.

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