Museum Barbie


Everyone knows that Barbie gets around — zipping from the beach to the boardroom, or the classroom to the moon, with a new outfit for every occasion. Now the ever-energetic fashion plate is heading to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she joins images of women by the likes of Degas and Picasso in the museum’s permanent collection.

The museum has acquired the original Barbie in preparation for its big fall show, “California Design, 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way.’” It has also landed funding from Barbie’s maker, Mattel. The El Segundo-based firm recently signed on as the “show’s lead corporate sponsor.”

“With a rich history rooted in Southern California, the Barbie brand is thrilled to partner with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to tell the story of California’s role in shaping the design history and culture of the United States and beyond,” says Lisa McKnight, president of marketing for Barbie, in her first public statement about the deal.


“The deal came together very quickly because it’s such a perfect fit,” adds Melissa Bomes, the musuem’s associate vice-president of development. “The history of Barbie and her aesthetic, what the brand stood for at the time, fits what the show is all about.”

Nobody is disclosing the specific amount of financial backing, but the museum did confirm that the Getty Foundation, which has granted roughly $500,000 for the making of the show and its catalogue as part of its “Pacific Standard Time” enterprise, remains its lead sponsor.

Wendy Kaplan, who is co-curating the show, says that Barbie helps tell the story of how midcentury manufacturers sold toys, furniture and fashion alike by selling the idea of a leisurely California lifestyle.

“Barbie is emblematic of the aspirations of the mid-century. Her dream house is a suburban ranch home, and her first outfit, so appropriate for California, is a bathing suit,” says Kaplan. “We’re putting Barbie in a section on play and children, but she also fits into the themes of indoor-outdoor living and fashion.”

She notes that her team was already searching Ebay for original Barbie material to include in the show before discussions with Mattel began, but the relationship made access to the material easier.

According to Kaplan, the show will include an original 1959 Barbie, known as Barbie #1, along with an early Ken doll, introduced in 1961. She wears black mules, a zebra-striped swimsuit, and gold hoop earrings, with her blond plastic hair pulled into a top-knot ponytail; he wears red swim trunks, cork sandals, and has painted-on hair. (According to a LACMA report, the very first Ken had “flocked” hair that “came off when exposed to water,” so a cosmetic fix was in order.)


The museum will also include in its sweeping survey a 1965 TV commercial highlighting the dolls’ new, bendable legs (“You can put them in a really swinging pose, and they look so graceful in all their clothes”), and an original Barbie’s Dream House from 1962, complete with clean-lined, Scandinavian-inspired furniture.

With Mattel’s donation of the original Barbie and early Ken, the stylish couple is now part of the museum’s collection of over 100,000 art objects and artworks. Kaplan presented the prospective acquisition at a quarterly director’s meeting in December, where other curators shared their proposals as well.

She says the glamorous toys more or less stole the show. “There were millions of dollars of paintings in the room, but all the curators clustered around Barbie and Ken,” she says. “There’s just something about Barbie.”