Frederick Douglass sits behind glass just north of Main Campus.
He looks uncomfortableand overdressed, with no neck, light skin, a big beard and sad eyes. It is a doll. It is a visual representation of the nineteenth century abolitionist that tells a story. For Barbara Whiteman, the doll is a tool.
“These dolls are connected to history,” she said in the small, display room of the Philadelphia Doll Museum last week.
She founded the museum, which sits neatly underneath a dark green awning at the corner of Broad and Dauphin streets. She’ll tell you she is a collector.
Without prodding, she may not boast what her collection has become.
“We’re the only museum like this we know of,” she said surrounded by the world’s largest collection of black dolls.
“We’re one of a kind in the world.”
You don’t like dolls, you say. But there are doll people out there, plenty of them. It matters. There are missions in all sorts of silly things, though Whiteman might disagree with her mission being labeled as such. That mission is of importance, if
only by location. In 1992, the state legislature set aside $60 million for the Avenue of the Arts project on South Broad. Former Mayor Ed Rendell’s lobbying was answered with anger by some. When North Philadelphia is ignored, bigotry is often assigned a role. Fortunately, Fast Eddie is nothing if not a problemsolver.
An additional $11 million was allocated for cultural projects north of City Hall, most of which was split between the Freedom Theater and the legendary Blue Horizon boxing club.
A total of $3 million was divided among three groups on the 2200 block of North Broad Street – where the doll museum now sits. Those three groups all aimed to begin the cultural change that the Avenue of the Arts project had on South Broad. By 2001, all three groups had been audited by the state for alleged financial improprieties.
While Broad south of Market Street is compact with some of the most important art institutions in the country, the northern half of the Avenue of the Arts is anything but. Despite highlights like the Academy of Fine Arts near Cherry Street, the Freedom Theater and the Blue Horizon, North Broad’s attractions are diffuse and interrupted by despair and blight.
The 2200 block, anchored by the once internationally-acclaimed Uptown Theater, could have been the start of something. The Uptown Theater is graffitied and forgotten now.
But there are 300 dolls on display across the street. Urban revitalization doesn’t depend on blank stares and plastic bodies very often.
But while you may have ignored her green awning, Whiteman is bringing new faces to North Philadelphia every day.
“We’ve had visitors from Montana, places like Russia, Japan,” she said. “Doll people will find me.”
Beyond just collectors, she welcomes school groups and anyone interested in the past.
“I can teach history in a completely different way,” she said.
She has traveled the country with her collection, from Dallas to Boston, Maine and New York City, and her name is growing. While she has been at it seriously for a decade, there is more expansion to come.
“We have dolls of every ethnic group and puppets, too,” she said.
“We’re limited by what we can display, but we have plans for expansion.”
The Philadelphia Doll Museum is now a reminder of a people that have been traditionally underrepresented in manufactured toys as a means to celebrate history, but there is even greater dignity and meaning in it all.
“It is hard to think what some say when they first see us,” said Whiteman, admitting her location and collection seem out of place. “They don’t believe there’s a museum in the neighborhood, which should tell you something.”
Christopher Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org