MA History of Design and Material Culture student Sally Jones reflects on turning her dissertation research into a Centre for Design History-funded exhibition at Pollock’s Toy Museum in London
On the train home from the Christmas late-night opening of Pollock’s Toy Museum, where I had just spent an exhilarating few hours sipping mulled wine and chatting about Frozen Charlottes, I reflected on the exciting journey from when I first began thinking about my dissertation as an MA student in the History of Design and Material Culture to discussing my research findings with enthusiastic visitors to the doll room.
Titled Miniatures, Myths and Meanings: An Object Biography of Frozen Charlotte, my dissertation borrowed Kopytoff’s object biographical approach to frame the life history of a miniature Victorian porcelain doll. This is a doll with many personas. Commonly known today as a ‘Frozen Charlotte’, the name was bestowed upon her after a Victorian ballad about an unfortunate girl called Charlotte. Charlotte froze to death having refused her mother’s advice to wrap up against the cold. Building on this story is the widespread belief that the doll was used by the Victorians as a didactic tool to instruct children (particularly girls) about the dangers of vanity and the importance of listening to your elders. It’s an enticing but misleading myth, that preferences one later identity above all others. There is no documented evidence that the doll was ever known as a Frozen Charlotte prior to the 1940s. My dissertation unravels and challenges the myth and presents a fuller and more historically accurate life history, revealing the doll’s varied roles and meanings from Victorian times to the present day.
Researching an object mired in myth and neglected by academic study, I felt like Alice pursuing the white rabbit. I caught brief but tantalising glimpses of an elusive figure in fragments of primary evidence gathered from libraries, museums and archives. Along the way I forged some invaluable relationships with archivists and curators. One of the trustees of Pollock’s Toy Museum in London, Debby Brown, invited me to guest curate an exhibition based on my findings. As soon as my dissertation was submitted, I seized the opportunity to share what I had learnt.
Pollock’s is a delightfully unique museum, named after Benjamin Pollock, the last of the Victorian toy theatre printers, whose engraved printing plates form the nucleus of the collection. Spread across two Georgian townhouses, visitors can explore an atmospheric maze of rooms and winding staircases filled with toys, games, puppets, dolls and teddy bears.
I worked closely with Debby to plan the format of the exhibition, based on text I had written. We settled upon the idea of a trail that would weave its way through the museum, taking in their penny toy collection, matchbox cars, dolls houses and dolls. Incorporating existing collections added context and relevance to the Frozen Charlottes and helped counteract the problem of their being so tiny and thus visually insignificant in museum cases. We toyed with the idea of providing visitors with magnifying glasses to engage them in a hunt for the dolls, but had to abandon this for practical reasons.
Converting a 15,000-word dissertation into an exhibition that would appeal to a range of visitors was challenging. So as not to overburden people with too much text, I wrote a short six-fold leaflet giving a pocket history of the dolls, which Pollock’s adapted to their in-house style. This allowed scope to tell more of their story, although it was still difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out! I tried to make each text panel work as part of a trail, but also as a stand-alone piece, because the layout of Pollock’s, whilst very much part of its charm, meant that I could not assume that visitors would find and read each one.
A big concern was what to call the dolls. This was a problem I encountered in my dissertation, but there I had more space for reflecting on my decisions. There is no one single name for these dolls. They are now often known as Frozen Charlottes, but as the focus of my research was to challenge this title, it felt wrong to keep referring to them as such. Mostly I tried to stick to variations of the long-winded but more accurate phrase ‘miniature porcelain dolls’.
There was also a tight deadline to work to, as the museum was keen to have the exhibition in place as part of its Christmas programme. The Christmas theme fitted well with the story of the dolls, which were sold on London streets by penny toy traders – so-called ‘gutter merchants’ – who were particularly active in the festive season. The dolls were also incorporated into Christmas traditions; they were baked into Christmas puddings and hidden within walnuts – hence the title of the exhibition ‘Christmas in a Nutshell’.
Working with Pollock’s Museum has been a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience and it is incredibly exciting to witness my MA research reach a wider audience. I loved every moment of my MA, but sharing my dissertation findings and seeing the interest it sparked in others, has certainly been one of the highlights.
The Christmas in a Nutshell exhibition runs from 10th December – January 2023 and is free with museum tickets Christmas in a Nutshell at Pollock’s Toy Museum (pollockstoymuseum.co.uk)