Constructing Play


of an Exhibition

by Devora Liss

Published on February 12, 2017

  • Description:

    This exhibition examined at children’s toys and games through a mechanical lens – how the pieces fit, click, and work together. It featured four sections: 1) stacking; 2) modular; 3) interlocking; 4) engineering. Each section displayed a wide range of toys and games, many of them quite historic.

    Although the room itself was not very large, the exhibition was well-designed. The icon marking each section, along with the railing (don’t play with our toys!) were color-coded, making it easy to identify the different sections. The play table in the center of the room was surrounded by carts; each was painted to match the concept of the game it held.

    Within each section, the toys and games were organized in chronological order. Each was identified with a small label, noting the name, year, inventor and collection.

    I enjoyed this exhibition for a number of reasons. First, the number of toys and games on display was quite impressive. Some I had played with as a child, some I had encountered other places (e.g. a lecture at the National Building Museum), and others were new to me. Without really getting history, this exhibition put play in historical context. Children will be children, and will forever enjoy stacking, building, clicking and constructing. (A small number of labels provided historical info on specific inventors or an architect’s experience with a particular toy). That said, the exhibition was most definitely at adult eye-level, and my partner and I spent most of our visit itching to touch and play with the displays… (I’m forever curious, he’s an engineer).

    The exhibition was, in my opinion, the perfect size. A bite of knowledge, without feeling like we entered an overly-academic space – a stark contrast with our experience at MOMA the previous week.

    That said, I felt that a bit of theoretical/background knowledge could have bolstered this exhibition. Specifically, two questions lingered in my mind. First, how were these toys marketed at the time? Were they sold as learning experiences? Ways for Mom to get some peace and quiet in the afternoon? Ways to facilitate cooperation?

    Second, specifically towards the end of the exhibition, the question of gender emerged. I asked my partner whether he noticed whether the boxes featured little boys or little girls. Engineering is a largely male-dominated field and, not surprisingly, the boxes in that section featured mainly boys. Yet I realize that an exhibition about toys through a gender lens is an entirely different exhibition.

    Obviously, toys that had no ties to architecture/construction were absent. No action figures or playhouses, and no spirographs, those little iron-able bead thingys, or paint-your-own plaster sea star. You get the point. The exhibition could have noted its own selectivity.

    That being said, overall this exhibition was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. On a cold winter morning, we spent 45 minutes indoors (including the gift shop), shared childhood memories (separated by a few years and the Atlantic ocean), and saw some awesome games, familiar and new.

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