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Athens Toy Museum inspires ideas for an Australian national doll

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By Kathy Karageorgiou.

The wonderful world of toys. Some of my fondest memories as a child in 1970s suburban Australia involve being sent toys from my relatives in Greece. I was as fascinated by them as I was with my beloved toy koala. I remember receiving two Greek ‘national’ dolls in their multicoloured, folk costumes with intricate detailing – braided velvet vests, and white pleated skirts, and hats and shoes, leaving me in awe for hours as I played with them.

Another doll related gift from Greece was a small beanbag, one with a cute face – a ‘tiherouli’ or ‘lucky’ doll, from the word ‘tihi’ meaning luck in Greek. My cousins received them too, and we’d play with these toys by attributing particular personalities to their various colours, much like the seven dwarfs of Snow White.

Display cabinet which shows a number of toys held at the museum.

Although I liked my ‘usual’ dolls and other toys, my favourite koala toy and my toys from Greek shores added more fuel to my childhood imagination. I’d imagine places, people and lives different to my own. This expanding – or developing and educating – of my young mind led to wanting to find out more about life, about the world. Toys were eventually replaced by books and then travel. And so, when I learned of a Toy Museum in Athens, I was keen to take a look.

Koala Toy

The Benaki Toy Museum is housed in a beautiful old mansion built in the 1890s – a gem among the concrete apartment blocks that now make up the Athenian sea-side suburb of Paleo Faliro. This building resembles a castle whose Gothic and baroque retained and restored architectural features continue inside.

And of course, there are the toys! These range from antiquity all the way through to the 1970s (including my ‘tsolia’ and ‘tiherouli’ dolls). The museum comprises two floors (with disability access) and is cleverly themed according to category of the toy.  These delineations, to name a few, include ‘Mechanical toys and building sets’ or ‘At the festival stalls’ and ‘Toys from faraway countries,’ etc.

Tsolia Doll

Toys from faraway countries? Perhaps a koala or kangaroo? Hmm, none in sight I notice, even though they have ‘teddy’ bears, which my curators, Mary Vergos and Nora Hatzopoulou tell me were named after former US American President Teddy Roosevelt, explaining the ensuing details of how this came to be. 

I politely voice my observation once I see the displays of national dolls of other countries: “Are there any Australian related toys or dolls?” I purport, arching an eyebrow, not wanting my Aussie patriotism to get the better of me. 

To my delight, my curator ladies announce, “oh yes, come this way, we were getting to that – look!” I am confronted by a lovely and unusual doll – swimming! She is dated 1910 and is in a swimsuit baring full arms and legs. The Australian doll of the Athens Toy Museum is the famous swimmer, Annette Kellerman.

The Kellerman Doll.

Annette Kellerman was also a Hollywood silent movie actress, where she made the first nude appearance ever in a movie, in Daughter of the Gods in 1916. She was also iconised in a 1952 Hollywood movie Million dollar mermaid, starring Esther Williams. Furthermore, our Ms Kellerman was the first woman to appear in a ‘risque,’ for the time, bathing suit, which ushered in comfortable and practical women’s ‘bathers’ as we call them.

Granted, the Annette Kellerman doll is a proud tribute to Australia, but it isn’t actually found alongside the Benaki Toy Museum’s display with foreign dolls, including Greek, Russian and Japanese ones to name a few. This got me thinking that Australia doesn’t actually have its own ‘national doll.’ 

Is it because we’re a multicultural country and so where would you start in terms of representing all the ethnic groups that make up Australia? If we had an Aboriginal doll, would that be ignoring the later arrivals that have contributed to making Australia what it is today? Thus, if you aimed for a mixed-race doll, perhaps an ethnic group would be insulted for feeling ignored? It could get tricky, including say, a vote on what an Aussie national doll would, could or should be.

The Big Bogan found in Australia

Taking an example from the Greeks, as the Toy Museum shows, there a variety of Greek national dolls – male, female, varied costumed depending on which part of Greece they’re from, etc. Such dolls also exist in the modern Australian context but perhaps due to the recent history of Australia as a ‘nation,’ a main identifiable Australian doll doesn’t yet exist, as our ‘national’ identity is ever evolving. 

Discussing this with a few Greek Australian friends here in Athens, we came up with some ideas to be incorporated into this fictional Aussie doll. 

“How about like the Big Pineapple in Queensland or the Big Ned Kelly in Victoria… in an Aussie doll?!” was one suggestion. Another told of there already being a ‘swagman’ doll in the National Museum of Australia dated 1964 that could be used. The ideas and fun went on, and we still couldn’t agree. 

All this thought and play started with my visit to the inspirational Benaki Toy Museum in Athens, Greece, which is well worth a visit.

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