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Barbie exhibition review – saccharine factory of neoliberal dreams ★★★☆☆

 © Jo Underhill for the Design Museum

In 2022, a unique Barbie doll spent six months orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station as part of a landmark mission. The doll was sent into space with a muse that inspired its creation, Europe’s first female commander of the International Space Station, Samantha Cristoforetti. While in orbit, Cristoforetti conducted a Q&A with five girls as part of Barbie and the European Space Agency’s joint commitment to encouraging young girls to become the next generation of astronauts, engineers and scientists. However impressive, space exploration is merely one among many of Barbie’s ambitions. Across the Design Museum’s exhaustive catalogue of over 180 dolls there is: a president, a pop star, a violinist, an Olympic athlete, a police officer, a builder, a flight attendant, an environmental activist, a computer engineer, namely – ‘You Can Be Anything’, as the brand’s very tagline suggests. And indeed, Design Museum’s spanking new Barbie: The Exhibition argues, through its curation, that the doll’s design has been historically governed by exactly such mutability. It suggests that Barbie is a variable avatar onto which any girl can project her dreams of greatness, realise herself through play, and come out more ambitious than ever in doing so.

The exhibition, made in partnership with none other than Mattel, explores Barbie’s changing appearance in relation to evolving cultural shifts around diversity and representation. If fashion, as Werner Sombart declared it, is ‘capitalism’s favourite child’, then the Design Museum does an excellent job at highlighting Barbie’s cultural position at the crux of where capitalism, childhood, consumption, and a need for constant novelty meet. Fittingly enough, the objects that make Barbie Barbie are gathered in the Sam Jacob Studio-designed rooms in an overwhelming abundance. Outfits, playsets, dreamhouses, cars, hair – Barbie is as much of an icon as she is a playfield, and Design Museum is dedicated to conveying the message that Barbie, the brand, is a cultural behemoth with a legacy that spans warehouses of doll-sized ideas.

 © Jo Underhill for the Design Museum

Barbie: The Exhibition is thus not only a saccharine feast for the eyes, but also a study in the archival knowledge of the Barbie lore. If there is a lot to see, there is even more to read, making for an intriguing profile of how Barbie both took from, and fed into, contemporary ideas of what it means to represent a ‘woman’ through the medium of play.

Where the exhibition shines the brightest is not through its inclusion of monuments such as the first ever Barbie doll from 1959, spinning proudly music box-style in the show’s first room, but through incorporation of curios that reveal behind-the-scenes insights into Mattel’s design and world-building processes. Barbie Patent (1959), for instance, is a patent diagram that demonstrates the anatomy of the doll, evoking not only medical anatomy textbooks but also classics of experimental cinema such as Martha Rosler’s Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977). There are also Barbie Industrial X-Ray CT Scans (2023), a compilation of interactive scans which compare the construction of an original Barbie doll and a contemporary Made to Move doll, revealing assembly methods and materials used in the production of dolls. Read together, these exhibits conduct a sense of an affective timelessness that abounds Barbie, despite the shift in the mode of examination from analogue to digital technologies. It is thus a wasted opportunity that the Design Museum-Mattel collaboration stirs away from this aspect of their effort, prioritising instead in their display yet another outfit or a set of hair (regardless of the breathtakingly campy lamp made of synthetic hair which adorns one of the rooms, a total must see).

 © Jo Underhill for the Design Museum

Further still, the exhibition remains unabashedly unaware of Barbie’s two cents’ worth in the upkeeping of what theorist Laurent Berlant would call the cruel optimism of the American Dream – the idea that staying overly attached to fickle hopes of social mobility can hurt in the long run. After all, not everybody gets to go to space. And that’s OK, but it is a sentiment that Design Museum forgets to mention throughout their curation, resulting in portraying Barbie not as a cluster of self-updating feminist aspirations (see: Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Barbie) but rather a neoliberal factory of unachievable dreams, as they constantly remind us in their descriptions that young girls loved career Barbies because of the doll’s supposed ability to mirror a sense of future back at its user. We can only hope that young Cristoforetti had an astronaut Barbie to play with. But for most girls, ‘You Can Be Anything’ as long as it serves the existing power structures that scrupulously discriminate against young women. And that is provided you can afford to play with Barbie to begin with.

Barbie®: The Exhibition is on at the Design Museum until 23 February 2025. Students go for £12.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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