In a tiny doorway just off Praca Da Figueria is the Doll Hospital also known as Hospital de Bonecas.
One of the tall glass display cases sat open whilst an assistant shows an elderly lady the merchandise. Two children run in playfully gazing and pointing at dolls in residing cabinets.
There’s a deep sense of playtime there and everywhere you turn within the small opening, there’s a friendly if not creepy face to look upon.
Hospital de Bonecas is actually the only doll hospital in the whole world, spanning back five generations. It was founded by an old woman by the name of Ms Carlota who would sit by a herb-shop doorway in the market vicinity making dolls clothes. She became the matriarch of dolls with locals and townsfolk visiting her for any dolly ailments, entrusting her with their precious possessions.
Now in the present day, the Hospital de Bonecas is survived by Manuela Cutilfiro whose family line runs deep within the place. Dr Erneclindo is one of the three doctors who restores dolls and Melanie Ventura who gave me a special tour around the museum/hospital.
Melanie led me to a room packed wall to wall with towering shelves filled with all manner of dolls. She explained that these are the dolls waiting to be collected after being restored/fixed. Labels are tied delicately around their ankles, one has been awaiting collection since last year and Melanie says that there are quite a few dolls which have been waiting for their owners to reclaim them for years.
A shelf reminding me of every horror movie loomed behind me, heads, limbs and all sorts scattered across shelf panes as if begging to be fixed.
Next I was taken into the surgery, a room where Dr Erneclindo sits working peacefully restoring a doll.
Apparently to become a qualified doctor, there’s a specialised course of study to achieve at the Lisbon University which takes three years.
Melanie explained that when dolls come in with problems, for example with a damaged eye, it usually means that both eyes will be replaced with new parts. Limbs, eyes and hair are never matched but replaced completely.
Tiny ornate drawers are filled with doll parts, it was an exciting place to be, to be able to pick and choose your body parts almost…or choose the fate of a doll and just how they’ll be reanimated.
Through a tiny walk-through room there are dolls placed in cabinets. I was told that these are traditional Portuguese dolls from the different regions.
This cove then leads to another small room, but this time miniatures and doll houses are scattered everywhere. There’s even a court yard with a garden and some Christmassy ornaments. There’s much to absorb within the small enclaves, you could be in the room all day and still not see everything.
A grand room awaits and it’s the crème de la crème of dolls rooms, filled with the oldest collectables from all over the world. A type writer, nostalgic photos and other novelties rest upon a miniature desk and Melanie explained that the whole building used to be a boy’s school, so to honour the history and memory, the doll hospital made a special memorial space.
The room is dimly lit and this is because the dolls have to be protected against the sunlight as some of the materials are very old and reacts to the light. It’s quite amusing that the dolls seem to have a vampyric reputation even in their immotile stance.
‘The evolution of doll,’ are placed around the room and you can see how they’ve evolved. The room itself feels like every horror movie cliché you could imagine, with a haunting atmosphere that feels like the souls of the dolls lurk inside the room and perhaps even come to life after dark!
And it seems that even the Toy Story film had taken inspiration with character Spike’s ‘Babyface,’ creation which in reality is one of the oldest doll designs from before limbs were engineered.
A pram filled with the cutest dolls wearing beautiful fur hats caught my eye. They’re Italian Angel dolls from the 60s and children used to put their night clothes inside and sleep next to them. Adjacent to this, the Hospital de Bonecas had created a nursery replicating that of an 18th Century Victorian nursery.
I learnt that not every doll is fixable as Melanie guides me to a room filled with what’s known as the defunct dolls. The room is proof that there’s always something to do at the hospital. At the entrance of this room lays some traditional tools used to fix the dolls. It’s like being in Geppetto’s workshop in the film Pinocchio.
With all this old-dolly nostalgia I was keen to see where all the modern dolls from my childhood were. The first ever replica Barbie rests on a shelf next to all of the other Barbie and Ken-doll editions. There’s even a row of Cindy dolls, something I can associate with since never had any Barbie dolls.
There’s another small room filled with a dizzying wonderment of other recognisable dolls that tripped my own nostalgia from my childhood years.
Throughout the tour one thing struck me and this was the regular appearance of black dolls in each room. It’s not something I was used to seeing as even when I was growing up, black dolls didn’t appear to be so popular or displayed on toyshop shelves (at least in the UK). I noticed that most of the 18th century black dolls all have blue eyes, Manuela explained further
“There isn’t a specific reason for the blue eyes in the black dolls. It was probably because it was easier to sell especially from a commercial standpoint,’ she adds ‘It’s usual in Portugal to have black dolls, especially with the diverse black African/Afro-Portuguese population. Maybe in Portugal there’s no problems with colour.”
Manuela mentions that it’s good luck to have a black doll and at this point, a customer wandered in joining our conversation nodding and telling us proudly that she too has a black doll.
I asked Manuela whether there have been any supernatural events in the hospital since it’s a common assumption that dolls can be a vehicle for spirits to reveal themselves.
She laughed and explained how her twin granddaughters sometimes run around and tap visitors on the shoulders for fun, but that’s about as paranormal as it gets!
My time at the Hospital de Bonecas has been a trip down memory lane and an education in the history of dolls and the sentimentality attached to owning one.
Manuela told me about a customer who travelled from China and dropped off a doll which will be restored and shipped back. It just shows how important the establishment is and that it will continue throughout the generations to come.
I was interested to know about the elderly woman who visited when I first entered the shop
“This lady has had the doll for 40 years. Now she’s come again to change the arms and legs. We’re dealing with different generations and different dolls so this is quite normal,” Manuela says showing me the doll resting on the counter.
Before I left Maneula gifted me a little miniature Bruxa also known as a witch. I’m truly honoured at their wise selection.
Thank you Hospital de Bonecas for welcoming me into your world!