Gail Rosenblum
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She was removed quietly from an elaborate, three-story dollhouse at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. But the mysterious disappearance of the tiny doll — a black maid — sparked pain, a short documentary and led to a potent conversation about race.

Now she’s back, and happy stakeholders inside and outside the museum are determined to keep that conversation going.

“I think it’s great, and I’m also happy about the process,” said Andrea Pierre, who is African-American and who played a key role in the doll’s reappearance May 16 in the museum’s family center.

The doll didn’t just return. For years, she stood at the sink in the lower-level kitchen, her back to visitors. She’s been moved to the top-floor nursery, her face now in full view.

Kim Huskinson, the museum’s senior manager of audience engagement, said this story is not about the doll, per se, but about “the larger conversations around race that are occurring in museums nationwide.”

Those conversations, she said, include questions about how art is acquired, what art is acquired, how race is represented in that art and, even, how diverse a museum staff is.

“The doll,” she said, “has been a catalyst for real change” at the museum.

That real change includes a new informational label next to the dollhouse explaining the disappearance and reappearance of the maid. There’s also an iPad offering visitors expanded context about “why it originally caused trauma.” Parents are encouraged to access the iPad for questions to begin conversations about race with their children.

The 12-room dollhouse, from the early 20th century, was a gift from the estate of arts patron Mary Griggs Burke. Pierre, a middle-school occupational therapy assistant, has taken her two little girls to see it for years. The intricacy is stunning, down to tiny vases, woven rugs, a toilet, and working light fixtures.

But the girls were drawn to the black maid doll, the only black female in the dollhouse, and the only doll whose face was originally obscured, and marginalized, in this way.

Pierre thoughtfully answered her girls’ questions about why the doll was there and what she was doing (working hard for her family). When the doll disappeared, no one at the museum could tell Pierre what had happened to it.

Turns out that other visitors had complained about the doll, and the museum had decided to remove it quietly. The decision was not taken lightly, Huskinson said.

Nor was the decision to return her. Earlier this year, a short documentary aired that spurred a conversation about the dollhouse, featuring Pierre, Erin Sharkey, Junauda Petrus and Aisha Mgeni. It was titled, “We Need to Talk: The Dollhouse.” Shortly after, the four women began meeting with museum educators to ask big questions:

Should the doll return, or stay in storage? If she were to return, where would she be placed?

And what lessons have been learned by the Art Institute about its own accountability?

“It’s an important time for this issue right now,” Pierre said, “to really figure out what the museum’s future will look like.”

The present looks like a sweet victory.

On Wednesday, a small group of staffers watched respectfully as museum crew members delicately placed the maid above a crib in the nursery, confidently soothing her tiny charge.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum