A journey around the world begins with a single step into the Maria Rose International Doll Museum and Cultural Center, according to founder and curator Naida Njoku.
A walk through the crowded six-year-old museum on Linden Boulevard in St. Albans reveals a large and diverse collection of figurines dressed in intricate designs to represent cultures from around the world — more than 500 figurines Njoku has collected.
Njoku said her objective is to introduce people to other cultures and to preserve history. The dolls represent — and are meant to encourage — world travel.
“I want to educate our youth so that one day, they will travel to various continents of the world that are presented in this doll collection,” she said.
Reinforcing that goal, a sculpture of Saint Raphael, the patron saint of travelers, is posted in the museum’s hallway.
The exhibits are arranged by continent, and the dolls within each by the nations they originate from or represent. Many were acquired from different countries, ranging from Ireland to Eritrea. Stuffed penguins are used to represent Antarctica.
“This museum is an extension of classroom education,” said Shirley Phipps, its manager. “And we’re trying to introduce kids to traveling. Some kids never leave their block other than going to school.”
During a “world tour,” Njoku gives participants individual maps and puts on a presentation about each continent and the dolls that represent it. Many of the dolls have a name and back story.
Some are recognizable and iconic figures such as John F. Kennedy Jr., in the blue coat and shorts he wore to his father’s funeral, Barack and Michelle Obama and Britain’s Princess Diana, Prince William and Princess Kate. Fictional characters such as Hansel and Gretel are also on display.
The museum is the result of a hobby that began in Njoku’s youth.
She was given her first doll for collection when she was 14 by one of her closest friends. It was a sweet-faced 8-inch Ginny Dutch doll dressed in a klompen dancer costume and carved wooden clogs. What set the doll apart from the others she used to play with as a child was its appearance.
“I didn’t want to play with [the Ginny dolls], I wanted to look at them and take in their culture,” Njoku said about the rosy-cheeked figurines that prompted her to collect dolls for more than 60 years. Adding dolls from various cultures became a priority.
It also caused a bit of a ruckus at home.
“I had all of these dolls and my husband was saying that our house is not a museum,” she said. “The dolls were in the dining room and they spilled over to the living room.”
She decided to open the museum in 2007. And she realized her collection could be used as an educational tool when she found herself showing one of her grandchildren her dolls in an effort to spark interest in social studies and geography.
“I wanted to make them interested in different countries and places,” she said. “I opened it originally for the beauty of the dolls, to tell you the truth — then gradually, as it evolved, I saw it as a teaching tool.”
In addition to tours, the museum holds doll-making discussions, teaches children tea party etiquette and hosts special events in recognition of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, along with other programs of community interest.
“Although everyone is invited, our focus is on the children,” Njoku said. “My objective is to introduce them to other people’s culture.”
Additional exhibits include a mini-Disney World, which features a cardboard cutout of the Cinderella castle in the background and figurines of several Disney characters such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pocahontas and Shrek.
A wall-mounted display case of celebrity dolls includes Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, along with Golden Age of Hollywood stars such as Gene Tierney, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.
And Njoku, who is also an artist, displays many of her paintings in the museum.
Although the museum is bursting at the seams with dolls, other miniatures and stuffed animals, Njoku said she continues to add to her collection.
“I still collect,” she said. “My friends keep telling me stop collecting but it’s an ongoing hobby.”
The museum is hosting a fundraiser on-site from 12 to 4 p.m. Oct. 26 in an effort to expand the collection.
When: Wednesday-Saturday, — 12:30-4:30 p.m.
Where: 187-11 Linden Blvd., St. Albans
Tickets: $5 adults; $2.50 children
(718) 276-3454 / mariarose.biz