Tag Archives: curatorial

The Golliwog Dilemma

Robertson's Golly

Since we started emptying our off-site storage, we’ve come across a wide range of objects: everything from doors to toy trains, and from postcards to shop interiors. Another remarkable object we found is this plaster Golly from the 1970s. For almost one hundred years, from 1910 to 2002, this figure was the face of Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade. Starring not only on the jars, but in all adverts and souvenirs, Golly became a celebrity and an integral part of British culture.

The golliwog on which Robertson’s based their Golly was created in a children’s book written by Florence Kate Upton in 1895: The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog. The golliwog, a ragdoll that looked like a blackface minstrel, became extremely popular and a common sight in England and other European countries.

Two golliwog dolls from our collection

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the popularity of the golliwog started to get questioned. As our society changed and became more diverse, racial issues became increasingly important and minority groups started to get a stronger voice. The blackface minstrels were no longer seen as entertaining, but as racist caricatures and crude stereotypes. The same was true for the golliwog: he may have had a more gentle character, but he was still an expression of the negative way Black people were formerly seen.

Although the golliwog obviously offended many people, not everyone agreed with the view that he was racist. The golliwog had become such a part of our culture that many people felt personally connected to him, having grown up with the Robertson’s Golly. Many saw him as a positive figure that wouldn’t hurt or offend anyone, at least not deliberately. Most of all, some felt that he was never created with any racist intentions in mind and should not be perceived in that way.

When thinking about displaying objects like this golliwog, museums are faced with difficult questions. In some of the time periods we cover at Beamish the golliwog would have been a very common sight. So if we want to be historically accurate we should display him. But how important is historical detail if it may offend large groups of people? On the other hand, leaving it out might suggest that racism didn’t exist in the past, so maybe telling the story within the right context would be better? The story of Golly can tell us a lot about how our society has grown and changed.

Golly’s days as the face of Robertson’s marmalade might be gone, but he remains an instantly recognisable and controversial 20th century figure. There aren’t many children’s book characters who can inspire warm nostalgia and offence in equal measure! It leaves museums like Beamish with an interesting but sensitive problem. What do you think about the golliwog dilemma?

Laying Out the Welcome Mat


Proggy mat from Beamish collection, 1956


Hello and welcome to our new Beamish blog! My name is Cheryl and I work in the curatorial team here at Beamish, as Assistant Keeper of Social History. We work with the collections here at the museum – our job is to use objects and stories to help us tell the story of the North East here at Beamish.

We’ve called this blog ‘Adventures in Collecting’ – doing this job is definitely an adventure. It’s a great, interesting job and it is a fascinating time here at the museum – we’re busy working on a lot of projects at the moment and we would like to tell you about some of them in this blog over the coming weeks.

2013 is a busy year: we are building a bakery and a band hall, moving a huge store full of fascinating objects and exploring the 1950s through our Category D project, and that’s just for starters!

We’ll be using this blog to give you a sneaky peek ‘behind the scenes’ of what we do. If you’ve ever wondered how and where we find the things you see when you visit Beamish, how we look after our collections, and what surprises are lurking in our stores, this is the place to find out.

It’s your blog as well – we’d like to you to join in the conversation, and we would love to know if you have questions or comments about the work we do. If you would like to know about a project, a building or an object at the museum, let us know and we will try and write about it.

Oh, and that lovely rug in the picture above? It’s one of the many proggy mats in our collection – it was made by Mrs Platten of High Spen in the 1950s. Today it welcomes you to our new blog as our first featured object – we hope it’s the first of many.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you come back to join us soon – watch this space for some Adventures in Collecting!