Making a thorough record of every item is essential when working with museum dolls’ house collections, as the tiny objects are so easy to lose or confuse with each other.
Here, University of East Anglia MA Intern Taryn Dennis describes her role carrying out the all-important documentation process that precedes the selection of museum objects for display.
From October 2015 until July 2016 I was lucky enough to work as an intern for the dolls’ house project at Strangers’ Hall. As an MA Museum Studies student at UEA, there were several options for the placement element of our course, but as soon as I heard about the opportunity to work with the Strangers’ Hall team in preparation for the V&A Small Stories exhibition, I knew that this was the project for me!
Although I had only a very limited knowledge of dolls’ houses, I was keen to gain further experience within the areas of collections and conservation and so, together with a love of social history and nostalgia for my own childhood collection, the dolls’ house project ticked a lot of boxes. Primarily, the project focused around the documentation of Strangers’ Hall’s vast collection of dolls’ house-related objects and involved photographing, measuring and documenting each item individually onto the collections database MODES. The furniture had been chosen as a very nice example of a large collection donated by Miss Bensley in the 1930s which had not hitherto been recorded in a detail.
In working so closely with items such as miniature sheet music and pianos; a menagerie of ceramic and glass animals; and beautifully preserved furniture, it really felt each week like I was unearthing a lost treasure! Many of the items were awe-inspiring, not only in terms of their size and attention to detail but the skill of their creators.
The sheer scale of the collection meant that the documentation task was not always straight forward! However, despite facing initial challenges associated with the documentation of any collection – missing accession numbers and incomplete information, for example – myself and my course colleague, Holly, were soon able to get into a steady documentation routine. With many of the items either missing accession numbers, or else including historic and now defunct accession numbers, the project involved a lot of fact finding but with the guidance of the Strangers’ Hall team, together with the Conservation and Collections teams from the Norfolk Museums Service, we were able to take small but significant steps in documenting the collection.
One of my favourite aspects of the project was learning about the individual histories of the objects and what they represented about the periods they portrayed, particularly in relation to the domestic sphere and the social pressures faced by women. As a guide to these histories, the dolls’ house expert Jan Roberts was always on hand to illustrate the importance of the collection at Strangers’ Hall and helped us to embed accuracy within the documentation process. Therefore, in working with Jan, Holly, the Strangers’ Hall team and the Collections and Conservation teams from the Norfolk Museums Service, I gained not only valuable professional skills, but a keen interest in dolls’ houses and an appreciation of their fascinating small stories.