Barbie At The Design Museum: Playful Exhibition Reflects On A Pop-Culture Icon

Author: Daisy McManaman

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Can the last 65 years of mainstream western design tastes, consumer culture and women's history be told through the story of an 11.5-inch plastic doll? Barbie: The exhibition at the Design Museum in London attempts to do just that. By considering Barbie through a design lens, the show explores how the doll reflects, affirms – and at times even challenges – the many eras she's lived through.

Barbie celebrates her 65th birthday this year. The doll has long been a conduit for play for children and adults alike, but also an unlikely agent for countless ideas. Her houses, fashions, vehicles and even her face, hair and body can be seen as a pink-tinted reflection of western culture.

Entering the exhibition space, visitors are confronted with what many collectors refer to as“Number 1 Barbie”. Incredibly coveted and rare, this first edition of the doll (released in 1959) is the oldest Barbie in any UK museum collection . She appears in her iconic black and white striped swimsuit , with hand-painted features and her hair styled in a satisfyingly swooped ponytail.

Barbie's debut broke the mould of play. She was an adult doll, marketed to young girls in an era where they were expected to play with baby dolls in order to socialise them to aspire to motherhood (as parodied in the opening scene of the 2023 Barbie movie ). Barbie offered young girls an aspirational glimpse into an adulthood filled with an abundance of opportunities.

Her design – conceptualised by co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler – was equally revolutionary. Aerospace engineer Jack Ryan created the Barbie patent , which allowed the doll to stand upright through small holes on the soles of her tiny mule heels, which would slot into the prongs on her stand.

In 2020, a Mattel-commissioned neuroscience study at Cardiff University found that playing with dolls activates the parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills. Barbie's ever-changing designs encourage this kind of play. The doll's designers are always finding new ways for her to move and talk, adapting to new generations. Dolls such as Fashion Queen Barbie (1963) and Totally Hair Barbie (1992), for example, had wigs and wildly long locks to facilitate playing with her hair.

Totally Hair Barbie (1992 ). Petra Rajnicova for the Design Museum

Barbie's head moulds themselves have shifted radically over the years from the “Christie” mould first utilised by Mattel from the late 1980s to depict African American facial features, to their more recent “Daisy” mould , which was developed to complement fuller-figured Barbies. In the exhibition, Mattel claims that they now focus on seeing Barbie outside of prescriptive identities and binaries, instead leaving“the interpretation in the hands of the consumer”.

Barbie world

The design does not stop at Barbie herself. The wider world of Barbie, from her clothes, to her Dreamhouses, to her vehicles provides a unique insight into design tastes and trends.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a chronology of Barbie's Dreamhouses which, as their name suggests, chart aspirational design tastes. Her original 1962 cardboard Dreamhouse was produced at a time when women couldn't own property without a male guarantor in many countries. In this way, Barbie's first dream house was an unlikely feminist statement, in which the only hint of male presence is a tiny framed photograph of Ken.

Read more: Why is the Barbie DreamHouse so creepy? An expert in the uncanny explains

Barbie Dreamhouses on show in the exhibition. Jo Underhill for the Design Museum

Further highlights of her Dreamhouses include her mid-century A-Frame Dreamhouse (1978), inspired by the designs of architect Frank Gehry, and her Magical Mansion (1990), which mimics colonial revival architecture in glittering, pink Barbie fashion.

The exhibition also represents some of the over 260 careers the doll has had over her lifetime. Ever the multihyphenate, Barbie's LinkedIn profile would astonish. From surgeon, to rock star, to environmental activist, her ambitious CV reflects the changing role of women in the workforce, but has also given young girls the licence to aspire for whichever careers they wish.

The cosmology of Barbie

Did you know that Barbie won the space race? In 1965, before Neil Armstrong made it to the moon, Mattel released Miss Astronaut Barbie . And the various playgrounds and make-believe moons astronaut Barbie has explored in her decades in the hands of consumers are not the only space expeditions she's accomplished.

In 2022 a Barbie doll spent six months orbiting Earth at the International Space Station (ISS) . The doll, which is on show in the exhibition, was made in the likeness of Europe's first female commander of the ISS, Samantha Cristoforetti .

The Barbie exhibition space. Jo Underhill for the Design Museum

While this exhibition considers Barbie as a design object, to those who play with her, she is also an idea, a friend, a muse, a confidant and a co-conspirator. At the press preview I attended, Kim Culmone, senior vice president of design at Mattel stated that while Mattel and its designers are“guardians” of Barbie, she in fact belongs“to everyone who experiences her”.

The finale of the exhibition speaks to the pop-cultural phenomenon of Barbie, bringing together magazine covers, fashion accessories and even a costume worn by Margot Robbie in 2023's Barbie film.

However, it fails to truly capture the influence and usages of Barbie outside of Mattel. From drag queens to the way we view the colour pink , Barbie's cultural impact has shaped the real world more than we may think.

As she celebrates her 65th year, The Design Museum's Barbie: The Exhibition reflects on Barbie's multifaceted representation of womanhood, design and play, and asks us to imagine how she may evolve next to speak to new generations.

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