If the walls of Danville’s old National Guard Armory could talk, they’d tell you to listen—not with your ears but with your eyes. The hundreds of residents of the Great American Dollhouse Museum have many stories to share, and they tell them without uttering a single word.
The stories are about the lived experiences of ordinary people—how they worked, played, parented, cooked and ate, their education, celebrations, communities and challenges. All are told through vignettes staged in more than 200 dollhouses and room boxes, a mix of artisan, antique, contemporary and historical pieces, including inhabitants and furnishings.
Visitors to the museum, the only one of its kind dedicated to America’s social history in miniature, follow a timeline from Native American and Colonial eras, move into and out of the Civil War and the Old West and head into the 20h century and even into the realm of fantasy. They’ll see tastes change, fashions transform and technology alter the landscape.
For example, dollhouse depictions capture in extraordinary detail the evolution of American cookery and kitchens, from the days of meal preparation as the singularly focused occupation of the household to early 20th-century Sunday dinners that were as much about fellowship as food; and to the mid-1950s and the era of the TV dinner to the mid-1970s and the dawning of processed foods.
“Visitors are amazed by the phenomenal detail of the displays, as well as the humor in the captions and stories that accompany the exhibits,” says Lori Kagan-Moore, museum director and curator.
Favorite exhibits include Alma’s Farm Road, Mummert’s Castle at Martha’s Mill, the Copper Creek Mining Camp and the mansion at Park Square Manor. Also featured are exhibits on Shaker Village, the Underground Railroad, Peck’s Mercantile District, Roominghouse Row by the Tracks and Dragon Lair. One exhibit provides background about the enormous building itself, with its 20-foot hardwood ceilings and steel bowstring trusses, housing the collection. It was built in 1939 through the Works Progress Administration.
A key focus of the museum is Kentucky’s rich agricultural heritage and its history in coal, tobacco and manufacturing, and several exhibits explore these stories, including the tobacco warehouse, sewing factory, coal camp and Alma’s Farm Road.
“Alma’s Farm Road is a big 1910 rural display complete with blacksmith, antique horse-drawn hay rake, apple juicing equipment and country doctor,” says Kagan-Moore.
Viewable now (and with additional pieces being added) is an elaborate medieval quest story, one that begins with Mummert’s Castle, a sprawling 14th-century Celtic castle, and winds its way through the Fraewood, a wild land full of tree people, unicorns, dragons and other unexpected, fantastical creatures. The full display is projected to be completed by the end of 2022.
As the story goes, “agents of the dark side of the Fraewood become aggressive towards Martha’s Mill, the castle and the benign and peace-loving mystical creatures of the Fraewood,” says Kagan-Moore. “And of course, there will be a wizard and the brave young woman who must overcome the forces of evil.”
Listen to the stories these dollhouse dwellers have to tell. They are a feast for the eyes.
New treasure to be unveiled
Coming next to the Great American Dollhouse Museum is the dollhouse that belonged to Dorothy Johnson Henry, daughter of restaurant/hotel magnate Howard Johnson, who commissioned both house and furnishings from internationally acclaimed artists from the United States and Europe. When Johnson passed away, the house was donated to a girls’ school in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
“The staff of the school recognized they were not able to care for it, nor share it with visitors, and they made the decision to offer it to us,” says Lori Kagan-Moore, the museum’s director and curator, who drove to Massachusetts to collect the treasure.
“It is one of the most lavishly furnished dollhouses I’ve ever seen,” she says. “It’s really amazing.”
Special lighting and a display case are being prepared for the dollhouse, which Kagan-Moore says represents one of the most fabulous collections of artist miniatures on public display in the U. S. Call Great American Dollhouse Museum at (859) 236-1883 or check its Facebook page for updates.
Great American Dollhouse Museum
344 Swope Drive, Danville
Admission: $12 adults; $10 seniors; $8 ages 4-16; free for ages 3 and under. Parking is free. Hours: 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday. The enormous Miniatures Store is stocked with miniature furnishings, building components and accessories at all price points, from bargain drawers and shelves up through precious, artist-made objects.