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Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001) 113-157

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History in Miniature:
Colleen Moore's Dollhouse and Historical Recollection

Amelie Hastie


For a collector--and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be--ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have with objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.

--Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

Silent film star Colleen Moore left a number of cinematic and historical legacies: the sixty-plus films in which she appeared, three published written works, thirty-six private scrapbooks, an extensive personal accumulation of photographs, her witness accounts in both Kevin Brownlow's Hollywood documentary series and the San Simeon oral history project, and an impressive collection of priceless miniatures. She installed the latter in a massive dollhouse that was constructed over a period of seven years by expert Hollywood set designers under the direction of Moore and her father. "Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle," as it is now called, traveled throughout the United States and Canada in the 1930s to raise [End Page 113] money for children's charities and has long been a popular attraction at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. It is, to be sure, a lavish and beautiful work. The castle itself is bedecked with jewels, precious minerals, fairy tales, and reminiscences; the objects therein are each exquisite treasures. They include furniture constructed from Moore's personal jewelry and other fine materials; tiny but functional objects; paintings, tapestries, and other representational works; and even a library of one-inch books penned by famous authors. The castle is thus a veritable treasure trove for visual pleasure. But much of the pleasure involved in looking at it, I suggest, is in the interpretation that it invites. In its richness of detail, Moore's bountiful collection elicits our decipherment of the clues it (and, indeed, Moore) has left for film history.

It is quite clear that Colleen Moore's fairy castle is no average text. Even as it appears that this structure is begging to be read, it also forces other questions: how do we read a dollhouse? What, for instance, is the spectator's relation to the dollhouse? How does our own movement around it correspond to a reading of sorts? And to what sort of reading would our movement correspond? Like most collections, it does not have a clear linear structure or even a coherent narrative. Still, viewing the dollhouse might be likened to the experience of watching a film. Because the dollhouse in its current installation is encased by a glass structure, we maintain a necessary distance from the actual image, and we see a series of images displayed as we move around the house. Yet, because of our own movement, we have less the vantage point of an immobile spectator in her or his theater seat and more the mobility of the camera itself. At the same time, looking at the dollhouse is akin to window shopping--especially in that we can never purchase the actual items on display through the windows but can only imagine ownership and inhabitation.

Considering all of these positions, how do we interpret this dollhouse, historically and textually? And why, indeed, would we want to in the first place? For one, we might read the dollhouse for the sheer pleasure of viewing and interpretation--a pleasure ever evident in the production of theory and history. [End Page 114] Indeed, we are able to read this work because it narrates a history, especially given our various potential vantage points in relation to the cinema and to consumerism. Susan Stewart notes that, "In writings on collecting, one constantly finds discussion of the collection as a mode of knowledge." 1 While Stewart sees this knowledge as "contained" by the collection, and therefore ahistorical, I would argue that the mode of knowledge apparent in Moore's collection is indeed historical. In fact, at the turn of a new century (and since its making), the dollhouse stands as a nostalgic remnant of a particular time and place: Hollywood...


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pp. 112-157
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Archived 2005
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