What can Barbie tell us about international law?

15 September 2023
A look into the souvenirs, merchandise and memorabilia of international law
In a new exhibition, ‘At the Vanishing Point’, Dr Jacqueline Mowbray and Professor Emily Crawford from the Sydney Law School reflect on the material objects of international law – souvenirs, merchandise and memorabilia – and use these as a lens through which to understand and interrogate international law and its institutions.
UNICEF Barbie on display

International law exists not just in the realm of treaties and State practice and is not limited to the UN Building or the International Court of Justice– international law can be found in everyday objects.

Objects and things have social lives and these objects move through time and space, illuminating their human and social context. Moreover, objects can be used to tell other biographies or life histories.

‘At the Vanishing Point: The souvenirs, merchandise and memorabilia of international law’, showing in Fisher Rare Books, seeks to unearth some of these alternative histories by bringing together a range of international law souvenirs and merchandise.

Curated by Professor Emily Crawford, Associate Professor Jessie Hohmann (UTS), Associate Professor Daniel Joyce (UNSW) and Associate Professor Jacqueline Mowbray, the exhibition examines how international organisations present themselves to the world by way of their gift shops or commercial collaborations and what this tells us about how society at large perceives international law and international institutions.

An interesting example of this that is prevalent throughout the exhibition is Barbie.

Among the international law merchandise and memorabilia curated are two Barbie dolls: Unicef Barbie, sold to raise funds for the United States Committee for Unicef, and Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie, commemorating her role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What does this say about international law and the image it presents to the world? What does it suggest about international law and its relationship with capitalism?

Associate Professor Mowbray says this memorabilia shows the significance these events have outside of the profession.

“The production of these Barbies is incredibly fascinating,” Mowbray said.

“It indicates that developments in international law, such as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have popular and commercial resonance outside the legal field.

“This is quite different from what we see with national laws, which are not celebrated in this way.”

The exhibition gives people a fun and alternative way to begin examining international law.

'This exhibition offers a new way of approaching international law,” Crawford said.

“Rather than starting with the legal texts and doctrines that create international law and its institutions, we look at the products of those institutions and ask what this tells us about their operation and how they imagine themselves.”

The exhibition is open in Fisher Rare Books 11am-3pm weekdays. You can also follow the team’s visual diary of the souvenirs, merchandise, and memorabilia of international law on Instagram - @atthevanishingpoint; and the adventures of international law Barbie on X: @intlawbarbie.

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