Black Dolls - The Power of Representation

A Black baby doll from the Museum of Childhood's collection

The National Caribbean Heritage Museum, also known as Museumand, has joined forces with us here at the Museum of Childhood to launch a special exhibition exploring the significance and history of black dolls. It takes a revealing and at times a challenging look at how Black people are represented in toys, dolls and characters in children’s books – and their impact on childhood and beyond.

Joining forces

Here at the Museum of Childhood we already had some lovely examples of black baby dolls and some more controversial items such as golliwogs and children’s literature in our own collection. Working together with Museumand we have created a special exhibition that is open 16 June 2018 - 6 January 2019 to explore the significance of black dolls in childhood, both past and present. Not only have the Museumand team brought a selection of dolls from their collection to display alongside those at the museum, but also a wealth of cultural knowledge and stories. 

Thanks to support from the Heritage lottery fund we have also been able to add four new items to the Museum of Childhood’s collection as part of the Exploring Childhoods project, which can also be seen on display.

" We’ve put together this exhibition to help all communities discover what life was like for Black children growing up in Britain through the ages. Black dolls are part of our shared history and cultural heritage and through the exhibition, we’re keen to discover how both Black and non-Black children experienced them – and their effect on childhood. "
- Catherine Ross, Founder and Director at Museumand

A challenging history

Black dolls have often caricatured and misrepresented Black people through history, reflecting the attitudes and cultural stereotypes of the time which of course is completely unacceptable in today’s multicultural society. Children deserve play things that reflect positive images of all races and cultures, to help them feel good about themselves and understand the world and people around them.

Golliwogs – racism or innocent nostalgia?

A familiar face to many the ‘Golliwogg’ is a black fictional character first created as a character in a children’s book. Although described as ‘a horrid sight, the blackest knome’ he was depicted as a friendly character with a ‘kind face’ by children’s author Florence Kate Upton in 1895. Popular into the 1970s the Golliwog is seen by some as a harmless toy, but for many it’s seen as a demeaning caricature of African people. Regardless, the Golliwog remains one of the most controversial images, guaranteed to provoke discussion wherever it makes an appearance.

A controversial character provoking discussion
A Golliwog doll dressed in white suit
A controversial character provoking discussion

Although the dolls are often accompanied by negative connotations today they were once a  nursery staple.The original Noddy stories by Enid Blyton written between 1949 and 1963 featured Golliwogs. Mr Golly was one of Noddy’s best friends, ran the town garage and looked after Noddy’s car, though there were a few naughty Gollies. Modern editions of the books no longer feature Mr Golly and friends.

" I don’t think when Enid wrote about Golliwogs there was anything racist in it at all. Gollies were just ordinary nursery toys and it wasn’t until much later that they became seen as racist symbols, but even then it was only by a vociferous minority."
- Tony Summerfield, Enid Blyton Society

Provoking discussion

The exhibition is designed to provoke discussion and get visitors thinking about how much of an impact toys and ethnicity can have on the way we feel about dolls but also other people. Times have changed, hopefully for the better, since some of the dolls on display were created but each have a place in telling the tale of our social history.