Doll museum embodies passion for history, hope for future

Recent talk of development along the north corridor of Broad Street has one of the area’s cultural mainstays cautiously hopeful to attract more visitors, but the Philadelphia Doll Museum has been let down before.

“Things have happened, things have not happened,” said Barbara Whiteman, executive director of the museum at 2253 N. Broad St. In the 12 years she’s run the museum in its present location, the promise of redevelopment in the neighborhood has gone unfulfilled.

Whiteman’s interest in Black history and culture has led her to collect over 300 dolls as a way of telling stories that “symbolize the struggle for freedom and human dignity,” she said. “We’re not playing with dolls here. We’re trying to build an institution.”

The collection ranges from Australian Aboriginal dolls to American hand-made folk dolls and Michael Jackson action figures.

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Whiteman started the museum in 1988, operating out of her home in the West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia until she began to feel overrun by the artifacts. She moved the collection to her North Broad location, where she presents history lessons with the dolls for school field trips and adult tourists.

Whiteman says she is excited that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission recently added the Philadelphia Doll Museum to its African American Heritage Trail. She’s also been encouraged by the acclaim of Marc Vetri’s North Broad restaurant Osteria and by the sale of the nearby Divine Lorraine and Metropolitan Opera House to developers.

She hopes the community will one day see the creation of a hop-on/hop-off tour bus, like the city’s Phlash, that would bring more visitors to North Broad.

Whiteman thinks many see the neighborhood as just “Temple Town,” but she said she doesn’t mind a bit. “I have a passion for culture and history. We’re an educational community.”

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