By Ryan MacDonald
Are you a Barbie girl, living in a Barbie world? Is your life plastic and fantastic?
Well no matter where you stand with America’s beloved doll, the Living Computers: Museum + Labs (LCML) wants you to take a stroll down memory lane with their newest exhibit, Barbie Tech Dreamhouse.
This latest installation from the South Downtown museum will take visitors on a nostalgic journey of their past that will explore what it means to be a female in the tech industry.
“There’s been a lot of talk around women in tech,” said Matisse Fletcher, the museum’s event coordinator. “So the topic is going to be this fun, pop culture thing, but we also have an underlying, kind of, look at the social climate.”
Visitors of the exhibit, which opens March 31, will enter through life-sized, hot pink doors where they’ll then be transported into Barbie’s world. Once inside the dreamhouse, guests will be able to peruse many of the play sets and dolls that are most popular from the franchise.
Also on display will be some of the lesser known toys and merchandise, like Hacker Barbie, a controversial figurine that was styled to be less feminine with baggy clothing, different hair and an entirely new color scheme, and the since-recalled children’s book, “I Can Be An Engineer”.
Fully functioning computers from the museum’s permanent vintage collection will be paired next to these miniature arrangements, and visitors will be able to use them just like Barbie did.
So, in other words, if Barbie was using a computer to get the job done, like she often did, guests will be able to use that same machine and mimic her every move.
“We must have that interactive component,” explained Fletcher, about the importance of providing a tactile experience. “I doubt we’ll ever do something that doesn’t have an interactive component.”
To create the exhibit, the museum partnered with guest curator Margaret Middleton, whose work focuses on inclusivity and femininity, and Rachel Weir, the founder of Femi Com, a digital museum that archives feminine representation in tech products, like console games and computer software.
Together with the museum’s executive director, Lath Carlson, they conceived of this idea as a way to examine the evolution of femininity in play sets. For many young girls and boys, Barbie was their first introduction to understanding what a career woman could look like.
With jobs ranging from CEO to a stewardess, Barbie’s professional potential seemed limitless to her fans, and many of these sets had the doll working behind a computer, even if they were designed to fit into certain gender norms, Fletcher said.
“When tech is for girls, it’s so overtly stylized to be a certain standard of feminine as decreed by society,” she said. “All the computers are pink and they’re round and they’re cute.”
For the opening night gala, Fletcher booked local Drag Superstar Robbie Turner to emcee, as a way to further explore upon what it means to be feminine in today’s world.
“The entire exhibit is around femininity, and drag queens play with femininity as well,” Fletcher said.
Known for her appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Turner will preside over the evening’s costume contest and encourage brave guests to strut down a catwalk to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”.
The following day LCML will host an event for families where children and parents can get in on the fun and be inspired by the play sets, too.
With this exhibit, the museum hopes visitors will expand their awareness of what is possible for women in tech, a field that has largely been dominated by men.
“LCML as an institution tends to try and push the boundaries of thought around tech,” Fletcher explained. “We want to represent all perspectives, especially those that are currently underrepresented.”
Originally a storehouse for vintage technology, the museum transitioned into a public space in 2012 when it made the decision to restore their collection so the public could use it.
Rather than allow these machines to sit inoperable, they wanted to provide a place where people could interact with the technology.
“That was really the start of what Living Computers is,” Fletcher explained. “All of our tech is living.”
Currently the second floor houses this vintage collection that includes an array of old computers, a Microsoft exhibit, Xerox computers, main frames, and a huge retro gaming library that any one is welcome to play.
They even have the oldest video game ever created, Tennis for Two, which was created in 1958.
“We want to make history interesting and we want people to engage on that level so they feel like they are participating,” Fletcher said.
With an event and exhibit like Barbie Tech Dreamhouse, the public is sure to feel like participating.