A few months ago, in a meeting room at Mia, a small figure of an African American woman stood in a Plexiglas case, surrounded by flowers. “Who knows how she was treated during her creation,” said Andrea Pierre. “Treat her like a goddess tonight.”
The figure belongs to a dollhouse given to the museum by the estate of Mary Griggs Burke, a prodigious art collector who died in 2012. The dollhouse was Burke’s when she was growing up, in a wealthy St. Paul family in the early 20th century, and it shows. The 12-room mini-mansion features tiny silver platters and a miniature piano, and water once ran from the taps. The dolls suggest a life of leisure—at least for the white couple in evening wear slumped on a settee upstairs, exhausted by gaiety and Champagne.
The doll from the glass case, however, is dressed for work. She wears the white kerchief and apron of a turn-of-the-century maid. For years, she stood in the servant’s kitchen, her back turned to the viewer. Which is where Andrea Pierre noticed her, and so did her two young daughters. The girls wondered about the only African American doll in the house and loved checking in on her, and Andrea seized their interest to talk with them about race and representation in art museums and society at large.
And then the doll was gone. Removed by museum staff after complaints that her presence was offensive, that she represents a stereotype. Which of course she does: the black person as servant. She could be seen as the dutiful, self-sacrificing “mammy,” said to love her white family as her own, a bit of self-serving folklore that persisted in white culture, especially film, through the 20th century. But she was also a touchstone, a conversation starter, a rare embodiment of blackness in the museum, whose story—like that of every doll—can be written and rewritten by the viewer.
Pierre was disturbed, her children disappointed. And when she took it up with the museum, an unusual series of events unfolded. Filmmakers documented Pierre discussing the doll and other uncomfortable issues around race with other African-American women: Erin Sharkey, Junauda Petrus and Aisha Mgeni. Then the women went onstage at Mia to cover some of the same ground—the event where the doll held court as a goddess—and argued that removing the doll was a well-intended mistake with unintended consequences.
“You tossed the doll aside like she didn’t matter,” Mgeni said of the museum. “And she mattered.” Better to keep the doll and talk about her, the women suggested. “I can think of 50 ways to make the conversation richer,” said Sharkey. “Commission work imagining her life, make six dollhouses [with diverse dolls], have better signage. … It feels like an amazing opportunity to have a conversation that’s deep and hard and could be fun.”
This week, the doll is back. She has been returned to the nursery, where she appears in a photograph of the dollhouse as it used to be, before it was delivered to Mia. Standing over a cradle, facing the viewer. With an iPad nearby explaining this background. So that anyone looking in can imagine her life and the women she embodies. And the conversations about race and representation, like those that Pierre and her daughters have had, can continue.
Top image: Andrea Pierre and her daughters peering into the Mary Griggs Burke dollhouse, in a still from Mia’s Art is Essential video series.