For years, Andrea Pierre and her two young daughters counted the elaborate dollhouse at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as one of their favorite weekly destinations.
The girls eagerly led their mother through the museum’s main floor before turning down a long corridor into the bustling family center, filled with children’s laughter. There it was, three stories high, protected by glass, offering intricate delights from top floor to bottom.
Yet, Pierre always braced herself as she approached the 12-room dollhouse from the early 20th century, a gift from the estate of arts patron Mary Griggs Burke. Along with a music room featuring a miniature piano, a dining room with tiny silver platters and candelabra and a nursery with a baby in a crib, her inquisitive girls, Millicent, 9, and Josephine, 8, also shifted their gaze toward the kitchen.
There, a white man and a white woman sat at a long table. Two helpers, both white and male, faced the table, seemingly waiting for instructions.
And a black woman stood at the sink, her back to visitors, her hair covered in a white bonnet, faceless and marginalized.
Then, suddenly, the doll was gone.
“It’s always a ping whenever I see a doll like that,” Pierre said. “I’m not embarrassed by it, but it’s somewhat painful.”
Many museum visitors, it turns out, had expressed similar pings. “A stream of complaints that the doll was offensive,” was how Kim Huskinson, the museum’s senior manager of audience engagement, described it.
The decision to remove the doll was made quietly two years ago by museum educators, she said, “and it certainly was not a decision taken lightly.”
But museum leaders eventually learned, and we should learn, too, that it is best not to ignore difficult conversations about race and naively think they will disappear. They just pop up sideways and more sizable.
The doll’s disappearance became a flash point around race and history, which led to important introspection by many and even a short film that debuted at the museum in February. Its title: “We Need to Talk: The Dollhouse.”
“It feels good,” said Pierre, a middle school occupational therapy assistant, referring to the conversation the doll has started largely because of her. “Sometimes, I want to cry about it, but I’m just so happy. It feels amazing to have my opinions valued by all these people who support this discussion.”
Beginning about five years ago, Pierre, then a stay-at-home mom, planned museum outings with her daughters. The girls asked to be lifted up to see the top floor of the dollhouse. But their questions came as they studied the first-floor room to the far right.
“What’s she doing? Why is she there? Why is she the only one who has to work?” the girls asked about the black maid whose face they couldn’t see.
Pierre seized the teaching moment. This woman is doing honest work, she told her daughters. Women like her did everything they could for their children, who became doctors, lawyers and presidents of universities.
One evening near museum closing many months ago, Pierre approached the dollhouse with her girls. “I remember asking a security guard, ‘What happened to her?’ ”
He had no answer. She reached out to the museum via social media, but didn’t hear back immediately. Around this time, the museum had hired a Texas-based film company, Flow Nonfiction, to produce a six-part series featuring a diverse cross-section of Minnesotans and their relationship with the museum. One of those interviewed was Pierre, who talked about the missing doll.
“It was one of the most unexpected and interesting ways into the conversation of race I’ve ever seen,” said Flow Nonfiction co-founder David Rice. He wanted to learn more. He proposed that his firm produce, at its expense, a short “We Need to Talk” film featuring Pierre and three of her black female peers talking about the doll specifically but also about being a black woman in America today.
The 20-minute film features Pierre, Erin Sharkey, Junauda Petrus and Aisha Mgeni in a round-table discussion that became more intimate, raw and funny by the minute.
The doll attended the event, too, protected inside a glass case, her face looking out, the case crowned in glorious yellow flowers.
Mgeni said her heart hurt thinking about Pierre’s girls no longer being able to visit the doll, which is now back in storage at the museum. “The last thing we should do is have her removed,” Mgeni said. “It promotes the invisibility of black women, who have been ovesexualized and desexualized. Let people have a dialogue about this. Keep the conversation going. Don’t promote silence.”
Huskinson appreciates the honest feedback the women provided.
“America is still grappling with the past and, in some cases, unwilling to admit that the atrocities of slavery and subjugation still reverberate in our culture,” she said. “When I learned that it felt like erasure, I totally understood that. Removing the doll felt like removing a part of our history. Having these conversations at a museum is not the norm. But [the museum] is committed to that work, knowing that it will show the cracks.”
She said leaders are “taking a step back” and considering many scenarios. Perhaps the doll returns, and the museum provides links to the film trailer. Or the doll is turned to face outward, with context provided by “someone who can speak to the experience of being a black woman in America.”
It’s possible, too, that the doll remains in storage, with a posted explanation of why.
Huskinson said a decision will be made within weeks. “We want to be very thoughtful about this.”
Whatever is decided, Pierre encourages parents “to not be afraid to talk to their children about difficult topics. We can also have these discussions with each other. We’ve got to start somewhere.
“We all need to talk.”
Talking about race
Starting a conversation about race? Expect it to be “hurtful and messy” at times. Don’t let that stop you. To live in community, “we have to go through it,” said diversity trainer Anne Phibbs, owner of Twin Cities Strategic Diversity Initiatives. “The shortcut, the silver bullet, doesn’t exist.”
Here are a few of her ideas for getting started:
Embrace vulnerability. Take the risk. Know you might get it wrong.
Educate yourself. Consult with the people who are most affected.
Be intentional. Know why you did something, or why you didn’t.
Keep at it. This effort is lifelong.