Small Talk / Exhibits

A Storied Past

dolls' houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood

If the residents of the V&A Museum of Childhood’s dollhouses could talk, can you imagine the stories they’d tell? That’s exactly the focus of the special exhibit Small Stories: At Home in a Doll’s House. Fictional family dramas, posh parties, and even spooky mysteries told from the viewpoints of dolls speak to the time period of their home.

Twelve dolls’ houses spanning 300 years of history are displayed, including an 18th century London townhome, a 1930s modern villa with a swimming pool, and a swinging ‘60s high-rise flat. Not just lovely on the outside, the contents of the houses also reflect the everyday lives of residents, guests and employees who would have inhabited the full-sized homes of their day. The exhibit includes a special art installation Dream House in which designers have created miniature fantasy rooms that reflect the imagination, technology and art of today.

Photo: Whiteladies House, 1935, Moray Thomas, England. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Stitches of the Past

Black dolls

For some toys it can be somewhat easy to uncover their history. Consulting old catalogs, collector books, company histories, and even personal anecdotes from their owners help historians like us at T/m to tell the story of a special toy. For some toys, however, their past is harder to uncover because they were not mass produced and may have been “loved to death.”

An exhibit at the Mingei International Museum explores the storied past of some of America’s most fascinating and mysterious playthings: black dolls. The exhibit showcases over 100 unique handmade African American dolls from the collection of Deborah Neff. The dolls represent a rich handcrafting tradition spanning from 1860 to 1930. Some dolls in the exhibit are also paired with an antique photograph depicting them with their young owners. The dolls on display depict a variety of emotions and give viewers a rare glimpse into the lives of their creators and owners.
Photo: Courtesy Mingei International Museum.

Getting the Inside Scoop

toys the inside story exhibit

Ever wonder what exactly makes Jack jump out of a perfectly good box? Or thought about how a plush Elmo masters the hokey pokey? The answers to these important toy questions and more can be found in Toys: The Inside Story , a traveling exhibit developed by the Montshire Museum of Science in Vermont.

Fourteen interactive stations allow museum visitors to discover the basics of toy animation through the hands-on manipulation of gears and circuits. Visitors can build a series of linkages that make Hungry Hippo chomp or learn about the wires that guide an Etch A Sketch’s drawing line. One station reveals how Operation’s Cavity Sam’s nose lights up when pretend surgery goes awry! Toys has traveled to venues nationwide, and will open at the Tellus Science Museum this summer.

Photo: Gary Hodges –

Banned for Life

banned toy

You’re probably familiar with The Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, where rejected playthings find community amongst ice and snow hoping for a ride in Santa’s sleigh. (Who wouldn’t want a water gun that shoots jelly?!) In reality, lawmakers and the public call for the removal of many “misfit” toys from store shelves for safety reasons ranging from choking hazards to toxic paint.

Luckily, the Banned Toy Museum in Burlingame, California provides a home for prohibited toys. Started in 2009, this collection features everything from hand-chomping Cabbage Patch dolls and lead-painted Sponge Bob notebooks to science kits containing uranium ore samples. Like the rest of the museum’s objects, these were banned for being too offensive or hazardous to consumers. It may not be a ride with Santa, but the museum will preserve these ill-fated playthings for years to come!

Photo: Battlestar Galactica Missile Launcher, 1979, Mattel, United States. Courtesy of the Banned Toy Museum.

Hello Forty!

hello kitty 40th anniversary exhibition

Since her inception in 1974, Hello Kitty’s cute yellow nose and large red bow has been placed on just about every kind of product imaginable—she’s even been on cans of motor oil! By 2014, Hello Kitty was worth an incredible 7 billion dollars! A special exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum celebrates 40 years of Hello Kitty’s worldwide influence with original artwork, fashion, and other rather unusual Hello Kitty swag.

Yuko Shimizu, Hello Kitty’s creator, drew inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass focusing on Alice’s pet named “Kitty.” Some mystery surrounds Hello Kitty’s design and personality, like the fact that she was designed without a mouth and given little facial expression. Company spokespeople, however, say her lack of a mouth indicates universality, that the character speaks many languages, and that it means Hello Kitty desires worldwide friendship. With Hello Kitty merchandise available in over 60 countries, the emotionally aloof feline has certainly achieved her goal!

Photo: Hello Kitty, Japanese American National Museum.

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