VICTIMS & VILLAINS
Barbie and Ken Meet Sherlock Holmes
Perpetrated by Derham Groves
Introduction: Barbie, Ken . . . and Blaine?
Astrid Britt Krautschneider
I’m not afraid to confess openly that I love Barbie. As a small child I think it was something to do with that (so predictable) girlish love for all things miniature and all things pink; I remember being obsessed with Barbie’s myriad accessories—those gorgeous little dresses, those tiny handbags and shoes, that fabulous Dream House, her beautiful silky-haired dog that even came with a special comb to brush him with . . . sigh. My mother, however, never let me have a Barbie of my own, citing all sorts of logical reasons (insert whatever logical reason you like here), which of course were totally lost on a smitten 8 year-old. I had to indulge my passion vicariously through my friends, all of whom seemed to possess Barbies and thus, obviously, far more sensible mothers than mine.
What my childish imagination could not have even begun to conceive was that, much later in life, I would witness my precious Barbie in a spate of murders most foul. In February 2008, over a long lunch at the University of Melbourne staff club, Dr. Derham Groves told me about his idea for a forthcoming exhibition to be held in the University Library gallery. Given his oft-articulated passion for the crime genre, I was unsurprised to find that this proposed exhibition would draw upon the University of Melbourne’s extensive collection of twentieth century Australian crime fiction. Yes, I thought, this could be quite interesting. The colourful covers of the books alone, fairly bursting with juicy pop culture references, would be a fun topic to explore in an exhibition.
Then came the twist. With Derham, you must understand, there is almost always a twist. His third-year architecture students, he explained, were to be given the task this semester of designing a centre for the study of Australian crime fiction. Before his students went ahead with their projects, though, Derham intended to make them prove they had a handle on crime by setting them the unusual task of a) reading a Sherlock Holmes story and b) depicting the victim or villain of that story using a Barbie or Ken doll. He had also succeeded in convincing a colleague Dr. Andrew Saniga to set a crime fiction theme as a base for his landscape architecture students’ design studio projects. Examples from the work of both classes would be displayed in the exhibition.
I found it a little difficult to envisage at the time, exactly how all this was going to work in relation to the exhibition layout, design and interpretation, especially since—apart from the books themselves—none of the items to be showcased in the exhibition were even created yet (indeed, even as the moment of installation drew near, some unfortunate students were still frantically completing their projects). So I decided to simply place my trust in Derham’s amazing ability to make perfect sense out of seemingly disparate concepts and pronounced myself delighted to work with him on the exhibition, which we titled Murderous Melbourne: A Celebration of Australian Crime Fiction and Place.
While I waited for the university semester to take its course, I worked on other aspects of the exhibition, but found that my mind couldn’t help drifting, every so often, to thoughts of Barbie and Sherlock Holmes. While it is rare to hear these two names mentioned in the same sentence, there is no denying that both Barbie and Holmes are household words; both indisputably huge twentieth century pop culture icons.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson must be among the most enduring characters in all English literature. Their London flat has even managed to take on a life of its own and cross from fiction into reality, for it now truly exists at 221B Baker Street. There is any number of Sherlock Holmes societies around the planet to choose from, and there is an almost endless array of memorabilia (or Sherlockiana) available for his hoards of adoring fans to collect.
And the fact that Barbie has just celebrated her fiftieth birthday and is still going strong, which in itself speaks volumes. Like Holmes, she too has transgressed the boundaries between make-believe and the real world: she now has a real Dream House in Malibu, been outfitted by real fashion designers (including Vera Wang and Christian Dior), she even has her own blog—on which I was mildly intrigued to read that she and Ken are back together. I was unaware that they had ever split up, although, come to think of it, I do have vague recollections of a rumour involving Barbie and an Australian surfer called Blaine.
Partiality to Barbie aside, I am also an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle was a master at describing in incredibly visual (or perhaps visceral) detail, all the gory circumstances surrounding the death or disfigurement of his victims. There is, quite possibly, nothing more enjoyable than curling up on the couch on a cold winter afternoon with a good Holmesian crime setting to revel in. For example, in The Sign of the Four (1890), Bartholomew Sholto is found killed by a poisoned thorn inside his locked study; his features set in a horrible grimace and his whole body ‘twisted and turned in the most fantastic fashion’. And I particularly love the scene in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) that sees poor Beryl Stapleton discovered alive, but shrouded by sheets and gagged, covered in bloody whiplashes and bound to a post in a butterfly museum. The ‘cruel-hearted’ perpetrator of this crime, Beryl’s scheming husband Jack, later disappears forever, deduced to have sunk into the ‘foul slime’ of the Grimpen Mire.
It was with some excitement then that I finally received several box loads of extensively mutilated Barbie and Ken dolls (sorry, I mean villains and victims from Sherlock Holmes’ stories) into my office for arranging, identifying and labelling in preparation for display. Like Lee McCrae, the photographer who had been entrusted with the dolls before me, I was delighted with them. Derham’s architecture students had transformed their Barbie and Kens (likely there were some Blaines in there as well—hard to tell—the dolls were all rendered so completely unrecognisable and I don’t know what Blaine looks like anyway) into what I can only describe as ‘murder maquettes’ done almost precisely to scale. Bartholomew Sholto at scale 1:6, if you like.
It probably goes without saying that the dolls stole the show in our Murderous Melbourne exhibition. If readers get even half as much pleasure out of reading this book as I did working with Derham, Andrew and Lee on the exhibition last year, then our work is complete. The images and stories are evocative and intriguingly captivating. Like any good Conan Doyle narrative, I not only urge you to enjoy, but dare you to put this down . . .
Astrid Britt Krautschneider is co-curator of the Grainger Museum. She has a Masters degree in Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne and wrote her thesis on the collection of Napoleonic memorabilia owned by Melbourne society doyenne Dame Mabel Brookes.