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Travel Through Barbieland at London’s Design Museum



Travel Through Barbieland at London’s Design Museum

Barbies from the “Inspiring Women” collection, including dolls representing British model Adwoa Aboah and U.S. tennis player Billie Jean King
Benjamin Cremel / AFP via Getty Images

Take a break from the real world and travel to Barbieland at London’s Design Museum, where a new major exhibition explores the evolution of one of the most famous dolls in the world.

Barbie: The Exhibition,” a collaboration between the Design Museum and Mattel, coincides with the 65th anniversary of the Barbie brand. With 250 objects on display, it traces the progression of dolls, cars, outfits and dreamhouses over the decades, starting with the very first Barbie doll released in the ’50s. It also highlights milestones related to inclusivity, demonstrating how Barbie has responded to cultural shifts and incorporated a range of identities into the brand.

The chief focus of the exhibition, however, is design: “What I would really like visitors to take away from the show, whether they’ve come as Barbie fans or Barbie skeptics but with an interest in design, is that there is actually a very complex and intentional set of design processes that go into creating the dolls and the accessories,” curator Danielle Thom tells Jane Englefield of Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine.

That said, those processes “reflect the social context in which any given Barbie is being produced,” she adds.

Exhibition view

The exhibition coincides with Barbie’s 65th anniversary.

Jo Underhill / Design Museum

The show was designed by architecture firm Sam Jacob Studio, per the Guardian’s critic Oliver Wainwright, who describes a “candy color palette” that creates a “perfectly tuned backdrop.” Pink, fittingly, envelops the space in all of its shades, but so do striking shades of yellow, blue and green.

The exhibition begins in 1959 with a rare first-edition version of the legendary doll, displayed next to archival footage of the manufacturing process in Japan. Other dolls on view include 1971’s Sunset Malibu Barbie, 1985’s Day to Night Barbie and 1992’s Totally Hair Barbie—the best-selling Barbie of all time.

Hair is another central focus of the show, which features a section dedicated to the evolution of Barbie’s hairstyles. “In the ’90s, I found that a lot of the Black Barbies had straightened hair,” Thom tells Dezeen, noting that today’s dolls come with all kinds of hair textures. “Obviously, hair play is fun,” she adds. “Children like to brush Barbie’s hair. But there’s more to it than that.”

Black Barbie 1980

Mattel released the first Black Barbie in 1980, though other Black dolls associated with the brand date to the 1960s.

© Mattel, Inc.

“Barbie: The Exhibition” showcases 1968’s Christie, commonly cited as the first-ever Black Barbie doll, as well as the first Hispanic and Asian dolls to bear the Barbie brand. It also highlights more recent strides towards inclusivity, including 2016’s Fashionista line, which offers “petite, tall and curvy” body types, and a 2022 Barbie with Down syndrome.

“You can’t say Barbie is radical,” Thom tells the Guardian. “It’s a mass-produced, corporate product. But there is an element of progressivism to it.”

The exhibition also traces architectural and fashion shifts over the decades. Items on display include the first Barbie Dreamhouse from 1962, which didn’t have a kitchen and echoed the designs of Florence Knoll, per Dezeen. A 1978 Dreamhouse on display mimics the style of Frank Gehry, while a 1995 house shows a return to a more traditional colonial-style architecture.

Barbie's Dreamhouse 1962

Barbie’s Dreamhouse debuted in 1962.

© Mattel, Inc.

People-sized outfits are also on view—specifically, those worn by Margot Robbie in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, last year’s high-grossing and record-setting box-office sensation. The exhibition displays a head-to-toe neon roller skating outfit that went viral during the film’s production.

The frenzy around the Barbie movie was a testament to the brand’s popularity. Where does that staying power come from? Thom thinks it has something to do with “the idea that Barbie is a reflection of culture,” the curator tells Dezeen. “Her meaning, or meanings, are in the eye of the beholder—the eye of the consumer.”

Barbie: The Exhibition” is on view at the Design Museum in London through February 23, 2025.

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