All dolled up! Warsaw’s extraordinary Doll’s House Museum is more than just a room full of toys – it’s a freeze frame to another age
Surprises? Warsaw’s Palace of Culture & Science has them in abundance.
Distinguishing the facts from the fables has become a popular sport with no sightseeing safari passing without first the mention of secret tunnels, prowling cats, hidden vats of vodka and assorted urban myths. But for the biggest surprise, you often need look no further than right under your nose. A case in point: The Dollhouse Museum.
Situated inside a shadowy inner courtyard within the bowels of PKiN, this little diamond is in the process of establishing itself in local legend as one of the most curious and captivating museums in the city – if not the country.
“It’s a magical place,” enthuses Patryk, TFN’s guide for the day – looking around, you’d be inclined to agree. Home to approximately 140 houses, the collection astounds with the sheer scope and majesty of its content.
“There’s a general misconception about dolls’ houses that we want to dispel,” says Patryk. “Most people automatically think of Barbie; there’s an assumption that dollhouses are very girly toys for children to have, so this museum seeks to demonstrate that there’s so much more to them than the public imagines.”
This it does and to stunning effect. Reputed to be the largest such museum in Europe, its creation was something of an unplanned accident.
Looking for a memorable present for her daughter, director, screenwriter and producer Aneta Popiel-Machnicka settled on the idea of a dollhouse, only to find her ambitions promptly thwarted at every step.
“Essentially, she couldn’t find anything noteworthy in Poland,” says Patryk, “and it soon became apparent that she had two options at her disposal: to build one from scratch, or to look further afield and restore it herself.”
Picking the latter option, Popiel-Machnicka found herself unlocking a dormant passion. Inspired, she created a website devoted to doll’s houses in 2007, and this was eventually followed by the launch of the Belle Epoque Foundation, an association geared towards spreading its founder’s love for dollhouses.
“The organization was founded to promote knowledge and awareness of the role of toys and games in the history of civilization, with a particular emphasis on dollhouses and miniatures as a document of old times and a cultural, social and educational phenomenon,” says Popiel-Machnicka.
“We live in an era of rapid and mindless consumerism,” she continues, “but fortunately more and more people are recognizing how important in this fast-paced world it is to have a real, deep awareness of yourself, your dreams and desires – how important it is to build a bond between generations, trace back the history of our families, and strengthen individual traditions. Finally, to learn to cherish our own memories… Dolls houses are perfect for this task in that they stimulate creativity and surprising ideas whilst combining elements of past and present…”
That this is a project of passion there can be no doubt. Painstakingly restored to their best, the houses are paean to craftsmanship.
“We acquire new houses pretty much each month,” says Patryk, “and work on them can last anything from a month or so to several years.”
This is not an exaggeration. Dubbed “Miss Hope’s House”, the most sentimentally valued work in the museum took six years of restoration. First built in England in the years that immediately followed WWII, the seven-room house was purchased at a London auction by Popiel-Machnicka.
“When they heard it was on its way to Poland,” says Popiel-Machnicka, “I was contacted by the house’s previous owner who told me it was designed and built by her Polish grandfather!”
Fleeing capture by the Germans, Zygmunt Pietrasiewicz arrived in Britain in 1940 where he joined the 304 Polish Bomber Squadron based at RAF Chivenor. Twice awarded the Cross of Valor, the dashing pilot stayed on in England after the war due to the deteriorating political situation in his native Poland. Moving to the Nottingham area, it was there that he met his future wife-to-be, Betty Hope.
Thought to have been built in the early years of their marriage, the dollhouse was modelled on a typical English residence and remained in the family for decades. “Without any doubt,” says Patryk, “it’s the pearl of this museum.”
Picking favourites, however, is no easy task. Principally sourced from Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, the houses are a triumph of detail and design, each outdoing the other in intricacy.
“These aren’t just toys,” says Patryk, “they’re a freeze frame to another age.”
Offering a glimpse of times gone by, such is the complexity of the designs that visitors find themselves all but sucked back in time: a Nazi era German sports school, for instance, comes complete with students that are the very paragon of the Aryan ideal. A 1940s field hospital, made from a medical supply box, is a grisly reminder of the realities of war. Similarly morbid, another house features a group of nuns crowded around the open coffin of a deceased sister.
But there is humour, as well. One school scene depicts a classroom of rat students, one of whom is banished to a segregated detention room; another house, meanwhile, comes modelled on a writer’s apartment and includes miniature wine bottles scattered around, a typewriter, and papers left strewn on the floor.
“One time,” recalls Patryk, “it was being displayed somewhere else – at the end of the evening, the cleaning lady mistook the mess inside this doll house as something that needed to be tidied. We stopped her just in time!”
Oozing irresistible charm, it’s easy to lose track of time inside this museum; peering into the past, lost in a world of miniature, those who visit find themselves beckoned into a beguiling, distant land that is simultaneously enchanting and extraordinary.
The Dollhouse Museum, Warsaw, Pl. Defilad 1, muzeumdomkow.pl