Toys from the Attic: Stories of American Childhood

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures and West Office Exhibition Design
Kansas City, MO

Toys from the Attic: Stories of American Childhood is the centerpiece of The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures permanent toy exhibitions, which premiered in August 2015 as part of a year-and-half renovation to the entire museum. Toys from the Attic explores the social and cultural importance of toys in the development of American children by side-stepping perfect specimens and focusing on toys that have been loved. Each ding, dent, and scrape gives a voice to children whose experiences are rarely chronicled in museums. This exhibit invites visitors to experience nostalgia, share memories, and consider the changes and continuities of American childhood in the past century.

Children’s voices are heard in seven chapters with a storybook design: Comfort, Relationships, Learning to be a Grown-Up, Values, Skills and Education, World Around Us, and, Imagination. Label panels include original drawings reminiscent of late nineteenth-century children’s books, and cases resemble antique furniture jumbled in a forgotten attic. Each section’s historical context and first-person accounts recognize the intentions of parents and manufacturers while featuring individual stories of how children utilized their own agency. Toys from the Attic evokes visitor’s feelings of nostalgia while creating a sense of common experience and an awareness of the larger cultural and social context of these objects.

The exhibit contains several interactive experiences. Four narrated video clips document the educational experience of a girl, Nettie Wells, growing up in Kansas City in the 1880s. Steve Otto remembers coming of age during World War II in a video about his Raggy Doodle U.S. Parachute Trooper. Visitors can touch popular fabrics for stuffed animals, use a reproduction of Dumont Reed’s Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring to unscramble Annie’s messages, and trace Ray Warren’s journey to win the 1947 VFW National Marble Tournament in a marble tilt top game. Lastly, several hidden compartments viewed through keyholes reveal vignettes for the museum’s smallest visitors to discover.

Toys from the Attic is for anyone who ever played with toys. The exhibit was designed to engage intergenerational audiences and spark enlightened and captivating exchanges amongst families and friends. Grouping objects according to social and cultural purpose places modern toys alongside nineteenth-century toys, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about the evolving meanings of “childhood” and the importance of toys throughout history.