Dec 06 2017
Exhibitions and Display Curator Lucy Cooper shares a sneak peek behind the install of our current exhibition at Weston Park – Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House
The Small Stories exhibition gives visitors to Weston Park an insight into the fascinating stories behind some of the UK’s best-loved dolls’ houses. Small Stories was created by the V&A Museum of Childhood and since opening in London has been on an international tour, with Sheffield one of just two UK venues.
The exhibition is based around twelve dolls houses from the V&A collection, built over a 300 year period. The houses range from grand country mansions to modest council houses, varying hugely in size and intricacy. Some are the lavish status symbols of the rich and privileged, some are the children’s playthings we recognise today. The exhibition sets each house at a particular moment in time, with the characters of the dolls inside brought to life through audio tracks where marriage, politics and parties are all under discussion.
The hope is that different visitors will find something of interest within the exhibition, whether it be the architectural styles of the houses, the details of clothing and furnishings within the many rooms, or the insight into social conventions through the dolls’ stories.
Planning for this exhibition began several years in advance due to the many logistical challenges involved. As with any touring show hosted at Museums Sheffield, we aim to tailor the content and design as much as possible to our own audiences. With some shows this is more difficult as the content is less flexible. For Small Stories the twelve houses, each with contextual backdrops and audio points, make up the core content of the show. At the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, the exhibition space is significantly larger than Harold Cantor Gallery at Weston Park. The first challenge was to plan the layout to fit all twelve houses into the gallery space with room to breathe, suitable access and visibility. The two ‘playroom’ areas, inspired by rooms in the Killer Cabinet and Jenny’s Home houses, also needed to be incorporated at appropriate points. Unfortunately this left no remaining space to include a dolls’ house from our own collections, but instead we have used a display case at the front of Sheffield Life and Times gallery for this purpose.
Normally we aim to change over our exhibitions at Weston Park within three weeks, allowing a week to uninstall and paint the gallery, and two weeks to install the new objects and build (plinths, cases, graphics, and interactives). Small Stories needed a four week changeover period, with one week purely to build the cases and the room settings for the playrooms. At times it was very tight for space in the gallery, with staff having to work around the many exhibition crates, building walls and backdrops for each house. Then there was a two week period to install the houses and contents. Each house was transported to Sheffield in its own bespoke crate, supporting and protecting the often fragile house structure. Some houses, such as Whiteladies, travelled in several separate parts, fixed together on site. The house contents could comprise hundreds of individual tiny objects, all carefully packed in a series of small boxes within the crates. These required careful unpacking and checking before being placed into the correct positions in the houses, with the help of many reference photos. It was an extremely time consuming but enjoyable experience.
Once the houses were complete with contents there was a final check of wiring – tiny electrical wires within the houses provide lighting inside the rooms – and connection to audio control points. We also took care with lighting the gallery overall, aiming to balance visibility for visitors with the need to protect the houses themselves from light damage. The lighting within the houses aims to address this issue as the rooms remain unlit until activated by a visitor.
The exhibition opened with a family launch day, which included a variety of Dolls House themed activities enjoyed by many visitors. Small Stories continues until 7 January 2018, after which the dolls, their furniture and houses, will make their way to Prague for one last show, before returning for a much deserved rest back at the V&A Museum of Childhood.
Image, top: Killer Cabinet Dolls’ House, England, 1835-1838 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Image, middle: Hopkinson House, interior (set in 1940s), England, 1980s-1990s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Image, bottom right: Hopkinson House, interior (set in 1940s), England, 1980s-1990s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.