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Destination: American Girls exhibit at Meredith College

A new exhibit at Meredith College features a toy that plays a central role in many girls' childhoods - the American Girl doll.

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Many a girl and, in some cases her mom, grew up nurturing an American Girl doll.

For the uninitiated, American Girl sells high-end dolls, priced at more than $100, that are sold with accompanying books, clothes, accessories, movies and more. The books and movies portray characters from American history and today. As the mom of two girls, my daughters have been invited to more than a handful of American Girl doll birthday parties (though we don't have any dolls ourselves).

The dolls and their owners are the subject of a new exhibition of photographs at Meredith College's Johnson Hall in Raleigh by Ilona Szwarc. She is a New York-based artist whose work as been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Time, The New Yorker and elsewhere.

The 10 photographs in the exhibit feature a doll with their young owner. The girls picked their expression, clothes and the location. Szwarc snapped the pictures.

This isn't a joyful celebration of American Girl dolls. The children aren't photographed with big smiles or happy expressions. That's partly the function of the photography format that Szwarc used.

"The girls had to stay still for quite a long time," said Lisa Pearce, Meredith's gallery director, in an interview. "That wouldn’t lend itself [to big smiles]. She really allowed the children to hold whatever expression they had, just as naturally as they possibly could for something they could hold a long time."

Also, Szwarc didn't want the exhibit to be seen as a commercial for the brand. This is an art exhibit, after all. Pearce said the exhibit generated some questions about the commercialization of childhood during a discussion with Amie Hess, an associate professor of sociology at Meredith.

“Childhood is a time of play, exploration and make-believe in which young people develop a sense of self free from unwanted external influences. Or is it?,” said Hess in a release. “... Ilona Szwarc raises an important set of questions about the context of childhood in the United States for girls. This talk explored these questions, considering, among other things, to what extent childhood has become commodified in the US. Does this affect girls differently than boys? How does the commercialization of childhood limit the ways in which girls develop their sense of identity?"

Sure, this is all heavy talk for many of American Girls' customers - grade schoolers. And, in some cases, that discussion might be a little bit over their heads. My five-year-old enjoyed walking through the exhibit, seeing the pictures and guessing various things about the girls who are featured. (She was a little frustrated because the exhibit has the names of the girls, but not their dolls).

But I share it because it could make for an interesting, but quick mom and daughter outing, coupled with a trip to the top floor of Johnson Hall to see Meredith's own collection of dolls. For decades, graduating classes have been dressing a doll in the fashion of the time. They are all on display.

The exhibit also might make for interesting conversations with tween and teen girls who have memories of their own playing with the dolls.

This is an exhibit where you should feel totally comfortable bringing your five-year-old daughter and her doll or your 15-year-old daughter and her questions about commercialism.

After walking through the exhibit, you can hop across the street for ice cream at Ben & Jerry's or a slice of cake at Edible Art at The Royal on Hillsborough Street.
American Girls is open through Nov. 16 at Meredith's Rotunda Gallery in Johnson Hall. Meredith College art gallery exhibitions and events are free and open to the public. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays, and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., weekends. Meredith College is at 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh. Johnson Hall is the central building with the rotunda.
Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday. For more ideas, check our posts on parks and playgrounds and Triangle family destinations.

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