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London: Museum explores 65 years of Barbie history through a design lens

The 50th anniversary of Barbie is commemorated by a lineup of Barbie dolls from different eras, at the Javits Center in New York where Toy Fair 2009.   -  
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Craig Ruttle/AP2009

United Kingdom

Have you ever wondered how Barbie’s homes, furniture and other products have reflected the tastes and trends of the day?

A new exhibition celebrating the doll's 65th anniversary opened at London's Design Museum.

It explores the story of Barbie through a design lens, including fashion and furniture design.

After 5 years in the making, curator Danielle Thom says now is the right time.

It is "an anniversary year and so it feels like a good moment to look back and to take stock of everything that this quite remarkable brand accomplished in that time. But also from the perspective of the Design Museum, what we really wanted to do is to look at Barbie through a design lens."

"A lot of people don't know is how these dolls come into being and why they come into being, and why they look the way they do. These things are not designed in isolation. They connect to popular culture in so many ways, and we really wanted to explore that."

Number 1 Barbie

"Barbie®: The Exhibition" will run at London's Design Museum until February 23rd, 2025.

The show presents 250 objects from Barbie's world, including 180 dolls. Highlights include a rare first edition of the very first doll released by Mattel in 1959 (‘Number 1 Barbie’).

"Well, the first you encounter is perhaps the most important because it's why we're all here and that's the very first Barbie, the number one edition Barbie from 1959 and she is shown in her original black and white swimsuit, her hair in a ponytail in her high heels of course. The very first doll when she was released initially was greeted with some skepticism. A lot of male toy executives felt that parents wouldn't want their children to have a doll with a, you know, a mature female figure. And of course, they were proven wrong quite quickly. Barbie was an immediate success."

A section is dedicated to Ken, Barbie's boyfriend. It sees six decades’ worth of Ken dolls on show.

 Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Barbie' on July 12, 2023, in London.
Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Barbie' on July 12, 2023, in London. Scott Garfitt/Invision

As the exhibit has been in the making for years, 2023's "Barbie" film - directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie - got a slight nod in the final room.

"It didn't change dramatically because we had always always thought of this exhibition as being a quite a separate entity," Thom said. "What we did introduce as a result of the film were and are a number of objects, props from the film, costuming and other things that reference the film. Because as I see it, it is only the most recent of a number of significant creative responses to Barbie."

Manufacturer Mattel has long centered its marketing strategy around its iconic Barbie Brand.

Kim Culmone, SVP of Design for Mattel, explained why Barbie has enjoyed a resurgence in the past few years.

"She's always been a part of culture, but in particular, now I think people realize, the depth and the, elasticity of a brand like Barbie. She's so much more than just a doll."

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