Monday, December 27, 2010

It's a Girly, Girly World: Barbie and Avedon

I saw the Barbie exhibit at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis several weeks ago and just saw the Richard Avedon fashion retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and combined, they provided much food for thought.  Although I might guess that the cross-over audience isn't necessarily much larger than me.   The Barbie exhibit had raised so many issues for me and then, combined with the Avedon exhibit made me think about the ways in which museum exhibits, intentionally or not, convey messages about our culture.  And as a visitor, sometimes you can only guess what those messages are intended to be.
Eerily, both exhibits had very similar opening images--giant, hot pink, close-ups of a woman.  It's been a long time since I saw an exhibit I felt as conflicted about as I did about Barbie.  What did I like about the exhibit?  It did appeal to all kinds of people.  I liked the share your Barbie memory story--and in fact, as I've told other women about the exhibit, we've shared our own Barbie stories as well.
The exhibit used real objects in addition to interactive elements.   I don't remember noting whether these were museum collections or objects acquired for the exhibit.  So you get some sense of Barbie's change over time.
The interactive were great.   This simple draping one, on a kid-sized mannequin, worked so beautifully.  I saw several girls deep in thought as they tried it.
Several of the interactives made me a bit sad,  because they were museum-based versions of the kinds of things we did on a regular basis at home growing up.    A round table with supplies to create Barbie clothes?  That was the regular playroom table of my childhood, but I think fewer and fewer families have fabric scraps around the house (my mom sewed many of our clothes) and fewer and fewer families put the focus on hands-on creative work.   Good news for museums though, as the hands-on, direct tactile, meaningful creative experience  is something we can do very well.
The exhibit appealed not only to girls (though it was hard to get past all that pink!).  Here's a young boy intent on tracing a fashion drawing.
But--and this is a big BUT for me.   I left the exhibit thinking, "But what happened to feminism?  Did we not accomplish anything in the last fifty years?"   Nothing about how Barbie's body image sets up an impossible ideal for young girls.  Just a passing glance at Barbie's many careers over time but nothing about how she performs all of them in those tiny high heels.  I didn't notice anywhere where visitors were invited to rethink Barbie;  or to consider alternatives to the way Barbie presents women.   Not the stuff of a children's museum exhibit you say?  Perhaps, but at the same museum,  a meaningful exhibit The Power of Children:  Making a Difference takes on big, complex issues through the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White.   To its substantial credit, it's not as if this museum is afraid of challenging content for their visitors.
And then just last week I saw Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (the show was organized by the International Center for Photography).   There's some similarities to the Barbie show--it's about women, and fashion, and certainly both shows are about consumerism, about material goods.  But I left this show feeling that I experienced entirely different perspectives on women in the second half of the 20th century.   Barbie is somebody's idea of perfection--and although Richard Avedon's images of women are breathtakingly gorgeous,  they are not perfect.   And certainly Avedon's job was to sell us clothes,  or the idea of a life women could have if they had the clothes.
But why so different?  The audience for the show?  Families, particularly those with young girls, in one case and art/fashion lovers in the other?  The fact that perhaps a show about a commercial product needs permission?  (for some non-permissioned art shows, check out Altered Barbie).   The idea that one thing is art and the other is product?  Art show vs. children's museum?  (there's possibly an entire book about corporate sponsorship and children's museums that could be written).   Corporate design vs. an individual artistic vision?  or just what I brought to each exhibition?

But I hope that each exhibit team would be happy that after seeing the Avedon show, the three of us sat down over coffee to talk about the two shows and what they meant.   Two former Barbie owners,  two photographers, one exhibit developer, and all three museum-goers:  we all brought our respective personal histories and viewpoints into the conversation.  And that would make each, in its own way, a successful show.


CNoe said...

Did the exhibit address Barbie's careers over the years? That is one aspect of Barbie that I've always found to be feminist. Barbie has been an astronaut, doctor, vet, paleontologist and even a presidential candidate.

Linda Norris said...

Hi CNoe--thanks for the comment. It did address her careers, but VERY briefly and the focus felt almost solely on fashion, rather than on her careers or even her status as cultural icon. Almost more a Project Runway feel as an exhibit than Barbie.

Margaret Middleton said...

What an interesting contrast!

@CNoe Despite Barbie's long resume, her focus has always been on her looks and accessories. It would have been a huge stretch for a Barbie exhibit to have been about careers.

I'm biased here, but I can't imagine Barbie being a great topic for a children's museum exhibit no matter what context.

Linda, I think a Project Runway exhibit would have been awesome! The exhibit team should have stuck to the exciting-looking draping and drawing activities and focused on the creativity and expression of apparel design instead of *sigh* modeling tutus on a catwalk and talking on the phone.

Linda Norris said...

Margaret--thanks for commenting...yes, the creative, how do you create fashion interactives were just great--and the loud music, down the runway, not so much for me. And glad to see your blog as well...more for me to read...

Catherine Hughes said...

My 9 year old daughter, who rarely plays with Barbie dolls, really loved this exhibition. She ran the runway, made a dress in a workshop, draped and drew. I had tons of trepidation going in, but was pleasantly surprised by how comprehensive the exhibit was - though I agree that it should have had something about body image. I walked through remembering different moments of my childhood, even though I was anti-Barbie as a kid. I didn't like playing with any dolls. In retrospect, it was similar in experience to going through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum and having flashbacks via pieces of music.

Linda Norris said...

Catherine--great comments--it sort of summed up the exhibit--the interactives were wonderful and engaging, but there was that lingering wish they'd talked about part. And I think that nostalgia/memory part was important for many of us!

Ruth Cody said...

At the fifty year anniversary of Barbie, I searched for materials that took a comprehensive look at the history of the Barbie doll from the perspective of women and gender and was surprised to only find isolated articles and nothing comprehensive that tried to articulate Barbie's changes via social change. I have been particularly intrigued and somewhat disturbed with the modern trends that make her into something other than a woman, such as a mermaid, butterfly and the return to the princess motif, and would love to explore an exhibit or read materials comparing different Barbies to the mental and physical expectations of females contemporary to their times. But I am not so sure how this would work in a children's museum considering the age for children into Barbie is much younger now than it was when I was growing up.

Linda Norris said...

Hi Ruth--
Thanks for your comments--I know several years ago the Strong Museum did an exhibit called, I think, Barbie and GI Joe about Cold War toys which may have dealt in some of the image stuff. And I agree, Barbies are toys for much younger girls than in my childhood. Wonder if that relates to the princess, mermaid thing?