Playing with identity

New doll exhibit opens at Vesterheim

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim
Dolls make an interesting study of history and social life. They show how values and attitudes continue and change over time, and they give lessons on adult roles, gender roles, careers, and ethnicity.

VESTERHEIM
The National Norwegian-American Museum

Visit Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, for a new exhibit, “Dolls: Playing with Identity,” open through June 18, 2023. This exhibit is supported by generous gifts to the Vesterheim Annual Fund from Daniel and Mary Ann Thurmer and their children, Jenelle, Johanna, Hans, and families, in honor of their parents.

Dolls date back to the oldest civilizations, and people have used dolls to help grow and connect for hundreds of years.

“People are fascinated with these varied and expressive replicas of ourselves. Visit the exhibit and consider how dolls have been or could be a part of your story,” Laurann Gil­bertson, Vesterheim chief curator, said.

Dolls make an interesting study of history and social life. They show how values and attitudes continue and change over time, and they give lessons on adult roles, gender roles, careers, and ethnicity. As popular culture, dolls have influenced people’s identities and relationships. “To play with a doll is to play with a present or future self,” Gilbertson added.

The exhibit will also feature Norwegian costume dolls as an expression of ethnicity. Two doll artists will be featured, Rønnaug Petterssen (1901-1979) and Hild Næss Hildahl (1902-1997).

Rønnaug Petterssen made a variety of dolls from pressed felt or plastic and was a leading maker of Norwegian costume dolls from 1934 to 1979. Many Americans acquired Rønnaug’s dolls through visits to Norway after World War II.

Hild Næss Hildahl emigrated from Kragerø, Norway, to Roseau, Minn., two years before the German invasion of Norway. She shared the folklore and culture of her home country by presenting programs for church groups, and she illustrated her presentations with tiny dolls arranged in scenes. This will be the first time Hildahl’s dolls have been shown in Decorah in more than 50 years.

Vesterheim will host a doll show and tell for all ages on Free Second Saturday, Dec. 10. Other winter programs will include a presentation by Bodil P. Meleney of Longmont, Colo., who is the daughter of dollmaker Rønnaug Petterssen, and a program by Mary Ann Thurmer about the U.S. First Ladies through dolls. Check vesterheim.org for more information as details develop.

Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, welcomes people of all ages and backgrounds to engage in the conversation of the American immigrant journey through the lens of the Norwegian-American experience. Vesterheim offers innovative and interactive exhibits, classes, and programs, both at the dynamic campus and park in scenic Decorah, Iowa, and online at vesterheim.org and Vesterheim social media. For more information on exhibits, classes, programs, tours, membership opportunities, and ways to donate and volunteer, connect at vesterheim.org, (563) 382-9681, and Vesterheim, 502 W. Water St., P.O. Box 379, Decorah, IA, 52101-0379.

This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Vesterheim

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa is the national Norwegian-American museum and heritage center, with over 33,000 artifacts, 12 historic buildings, a Folk Art School, and a library and archives. This treasure showcases the most extensive collection of Norwegian- American artifacts in the world. Visit www.vesterheim.org.