Authors on Museums: the Musée de la Poupée in Paris carries Jacqueline Wilson, the bestselling creator of Tracy Beaker, back in time...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
The Musée de la Poupée is five minutes’ stroll from the Centre Georges Pompidou. You walk away from the bustle and blare of traffic, the squeals and shouting of all the foreign students, the shops selling “I love Paris” T-shirts, and dive down a pretty little alleyway with a sign to the doll museum. It’s like stepping straight into a Victorian storybook.
The Musée was started by a father and son, Guido and Samy Odin, determined to find the perfect showcase for their ever-increasing collection of antique dolls. There’s the permanent display of 500 dolls in beautiful little tableaux inside glass cabinets, frequently changing themed exhibitions, a room for birthday parties, a doll’s hospital and a shop. As Samy Odin admits sadly, all small specialist museums are in a vulnerable position nowadays, and many other doll museums have had to close. But I very much hope the Musée de la Poupée in the Impasse Berthaud stays open for many more decades.
I first went there with my daughter, Emma, nearly 20 years ago. Emma was an adult by then, but we’ve always shared a love of dolls. When she was little I frequently took her to Pollock’s Toy Museum and the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. I loved to read her Rumer Godden’s charming doll stories, and we smiled at Beth’s battered dolls in “Little Women” and envied Sara Crewe her magnificent doll, Emily, in “A Little Princess”.
Our family seems always to have been fascinated by dolls. Emma had a large collection throughout her childhood, and was particularly attached to some soft little ragdolls and Sophie, a French doll with a rather vacant expression. My own first doll was a Beauty Skin baby doll called Janet. She started off a pretty pink, but over the years became increasingly jaundiced, though I still loved her dearly. My mother, Biddy, used to take me to see the Christmas dolls in Hamleys and did her best to buy me one every year. We lived in a council flat on very little money and managed without most things (fridge, washing machine, telephone, car) but I was always impeccably dressed and had lovely dolls. Biddy started to collect antique dolls herself, beginning with an Armand Marseille china doll with long hair, bought for ten shillings from a junk shop. As a small girl I combed this poor doll’s hair so frequently that she developed alopecia and had to wear a sunbonnet to hide her bald patches.
My grandmother Hilda Ellen loved dolls too and had a magnificent large German china doll called Mabel. Hilda Ellen had few other toys. She was rather like the little waifs and strays I write about, a motherless child farmed out to various unsuitable relations from the age of seven. I loved to hear her tell stories about her early life. When my great-grandfather married again and had two small children by his new wife, he brought the teenage Hilda Ellen back into the family home to act as an unpaid nursemaid. She had been given the beautiful china doll one Christmas by a local charity and it was still her most treasured possession, even if she was now too old to play with it.
My great-grandfather was a wheeler-dealer, ever the opportunist. It was wartime and new German dolls were obviously not available. He decided to set up his own doll factory with a colleague. He didn’t have the faintest idea how to make dolls, so despite Hilda Ellen’s protests he decapitated and dismembered Mabel to see how she was constructed.
I suppose Mabel didn’t die in vain, because my great-grandfather’s doll-manufacturing business, Nunn & Smeed, was reasonably successful from 1915 to 1927. They didn’t just use Mabel as a prototype. They went on to invent their own special walking doll with spring hinges at the knees. There’s a photograph of this not particularly attractive doll “walking” jauntily in “Pollock’s Dictionary of English Dolls”.
She can’t hold a candle to her beautiful French sisters in the Musée de la Poupée. Emma and I go to see them every year when we’re in Paris. It’s our little nostalgic treat. It’s clearly a special outing for many mothers and daughters. The child visitors to the museum all seem too good to be true—polite, quiet little girls with Alice bands and pinafore dresses and snowy white socks, gazing intently at each glass cabinet and whispering intelligent questions.
Samy Odin told me that he’s hoping to be able to refurbish his museum next year, but I rather hope it stays just as it is, crammed to bursting point, with doll’s prams and furniture balanced on top of the cabinets. The first thing you see when you go into the museum is a very large doll’s house with 20 small dolls in various costumes: a sailor suit, a Scottish outfit, a Breton costume, a First Holy Communion dress, even a jolly jester party frock. These are all clothes made from patterns in a magazine, La Semaine de Suzette, featuring a very popular little doll, Bleuette. The Bleuettes have bisque heads and are under a foot in height, cheery little creatures displayed in their own fully furnished house. There’s even a tiny feather duster so they can keep their rooms spick and span.
It’s easy to stare at them so long that you feel sucked into their own perfect little world. The loudly ticking clock in the hushed museum makes you especially aware that for a very modest tariff you’re taking a step back in time. This sense of time travel is increased when you see the only modern dolls in the permanent collection, portrait dolls by Catherine Dève, lovingly copied from family photographs of Samy Odin as a little boy, his mother Vera as a child, and his grandmother Madeleine, all aged about five and playing together happily with their toys.
Vera died when Samy was little, and Guido brought him up single-handedly. He had a photography studio in a village in the Italian Alps and took many photographs of women in their traditional costumes. He displayed his photographs imaginatively, with costumes and dressed dolls. Guido was given an old broken doll to mend, and the teenage Samy was fascinated. Guido gave Samy an English book about dolls for his birthday, thinking it would help him learn the language. They both became passionately interested and started collecting.
Samy studied literature and became a teacher while Guido continued with photography and theatrical costume design. His sewing skills were a tremendous bonus when an antique doll needed a new outfit. They started to exhibit their dolls, and in 1994 founded the Musée de la Poupée. Both men continue to collect and attend doll conventions all over the world. Samy has written numerous books about dolls—and touchingly has dedicated his major work, “Fascinating Dolls”, to “Guido Odin, my father, who made this amazing adventure possible”.
Above: while some dolls are almost life-sized, others are small enough to be slipped into a pocket
Top: Jacqueline Wilson reflects on a crowded fireplace scene in one of the permanent exhibition's three rooms