Women have always been the guiding force behind the Museum’s collection. They have shaped it as curators, educators, trustees, and donors. However, when it comes to this last group, many of those women are overshadowed by “his”tory. A glimpse through the Museum’s registration records quickly reveals that married women who donated to the collection largely did so in their husbands’ names. While this was the convention of the time, it often leaves us questioning “Who were these women in their own right?” With the wonders of the internet (and a little digging), we can often find the answers and reveal a rich “her”story in the process.
One such donor that came to our attention this past year is a Mrs. Donald Starr. In 1977, she donated her dollhouse to the collection. The house had been given to her and her sister as a gift from their grandmother around 1905 when Mrs. Starr was barely a toddler. Purchased in Austria, it is a three-story European house with mansard roof, appointed with a different wallpaper in every room, net curtains, and fully furnished beyond a doll’s dreams. The house was later played with by her own daughters, Victoria and Dinah. On the deed of gift, Mrs. Starr noted her childhood memories of the house:
“We played with it delightedly for many years until the family, which consisted of a blond, sky-blue satin-clad mother and black-suited father and little boy were reduced to the one little girl doll remaining. Much of the food is gone but there have been a few additions of other things, of which, I think a red-shaded lamp and a sewing machine. But even these would be almost 70 years old. The greatest joy was to light little candles in the house at night and then ring the little doorbell (which still tinkles! I believe) and walk in!”
“Starr House,” as it came to be known at the Museum, arrived just in time for the move from Jamaica Plain to the current location along Fort Point Channel. At the time, the Museum’s curator, Ruth Green, was mounting an exhibit of dollhouses to be installed in one of the galleries, Hall of Toys. After being stored in a barn, Ruth carefully cleaned and repaired areas on the well-loved home that had thus far survived two generations of childhood play. She also did comparative research to learn more about the style and maker of the house based on similar homes in other museum collections. All in all, a lengthy document file exists for the house, all largely referencing “Mrs. Donald Starr.”
When the Hall of Toys exhibit was retired in the early 2000s, the dollhouses were returned to storage. Earlier this year, the time came to review the dollhouse collection to assess it for deaccession consideration. As you can imagine, all of these houses take up a significant amount of space, a premium in any museum. In the process, each house was considered for condition, future use, and provenance, thus revealing the identity of Mrs. Donald Starr as Polly Thayer (1904–2006), a local painter and artist.
Polly has a rich local presence. She grew up in the city and began to explore her love and talent for art with a number of local painters, going on to have her first solo exhibit in Boston in 1930. Her family divided their time between the city and their farm in Hingham. Polly went on to raise her daughters in the city and to become active in a number of local organizations, including Boston Public Library and the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Because of this history, it actually made the decision to deaccession the dollhouse much easier. I can feel the hackles rising at the mention of “deaccessioning” – the formal process by which a work of art or other object is permanently removed from a museum’s collection. Before you get upset, rest assured that Starr House was not sent to auction, but instead transferred to the collection of The Trustees of Reservations, another local nonprofit organization. I consider it a serendipitous bit of collections match making.
With Polly’s name in hand, it was not hard to dig up other institutions that include her work, her papers, or her property among their holdings. The Trustees has all of the above, with the added benefit of being local (in case we ever need to borrow the house back). Polly gave her family home in Hingham, Weir River Farm, to The Trustees in 1999. While Polly’s archives are in the Smithsonian collection, her daughter Victoria’s papers are part of the archival holdings at The Trustees. And, as luck would have it, the Fruitlands Museum, also part of The Trustees, was mounting an exhibition of Polly’s work at the time the transfer was being coordinated.
Despite the extensive connection The Trustees has to the family, their curator noted that they have very few things from Polly’s childhood in their collection. Thus it really is a well suited match – the dollhouse remains in the public trust and may be more readily accessible to researchers as it is now better connected to other related collections. The Children’s Museum reclaims a bit of storage space to better meet the needs of our own audience.
While Starr House was safely transferred to the care of The Trustees earlier this fall, it will serve as a reminder of the hidden stories to be told and the efforts needed to reclaim the names that may otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Thinking of the uncounted pages of registration records and the many “Mrs.” they contain, there is plenty of work to be done. When social distancing is over, we may need more interns.
To learn more about Polly Thayer (Starr):
- Smithsonian American Archives: https://www.si.edu/object/AAADCD_coll_216362
- Polly Thayer Charitable Trust: http://pollythayerstarr.org/biography.htm
- Fruitlands Museum Exhibit, Polly Thayer Starr: Nearer the Essence: https://fruitlands.thetrustees.org/exhibition/essence (Check website in advance to plan your visit)
- Weir River Farm, Hingham: https://thetrustees.org/place/weir-river-farm/ (Check website in advance to plan your visit)