MOHAI’s new exhibit, “Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” displays three decades of toys that have stood the test of time. And the museum’s invited you over for a playdate.
Barbie and her friends throw a party on a shelf. A pair of Slinkys race down a set of stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head converse lovingly on a table — well, as best they can with one ear between them.
No, these aren’t sneak previews of “Toy Story 4” — they’re part of “Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” a new exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry. The exhibit, on display through Sept. 25, was designed by the Minnesota History Center in 2014 and visited Denver and Pittsburgh before landing in Seattle.
“The exhibit’s really designed to get people to remember their own stories,” said David Unger, director of curatorial services at MOHAI. “It’s almost like there are these grooves in your brain that these toys fill, and as soon as you see that thing … you remember it, exactly how it was.”
‘Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s’
Through Sept. 25 at Museum of History & Industry; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, until 8 p.m. Thursdays in August and first Thursday of every month, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle; $13.95-$19.95, ages 14 and younger free (206-324-1126 or mohai.org).
Upcoming events: “Toys Take Over Amazon,” 3-6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17, Van Vorst Plaza, 426 Terry Ave N., Seattle; screening of “Toy Story,” 6-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, free, Lake Union Park.
“Toys” consists of three living-room areas — filled with toys — representing the three decades and a television showing toy advertisements. Visitors can play with Nerf balls and hula hoops in a garage area, and there’s also a trivia game station.
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In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is throwing several events, including “Toys Take Over Amazon” on Aug. 17 and an outdoor screening of the original “Toy Story” movie on Aug. 20.
While the exhibit brings back personal memories of the toys, Unger said it also helps visitors connect those personal experiences to larger events.
“Like, there’s a number of rocket toys in the exhibit — maybe you see that rocket toy, and you remember playing with it — but then in the exhibit you also learn about how that ballistic rocket toy that you played with is connected to the Cold War,” Unger said.
Indeed, many of the toys on display are a reflection of their time. For example, G.I. Joes — called “action figures” to set them apart from dolls, which were widely viewed as toys for girls — were discontinued for a few years in response to the backlash against the Vietnam War. Media culture was just as important, with toys being drawn from popular movies and TV shows of the day: “Roy Rogers” in the 1950s, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” in the ’60s and “Star Wars” in the ’70s.
Beyond their historical significance, these toys tell much more intimate stories that resonate with the people who used to own them.
All around the exhibit are home videos of children tearing open Christmas presents and other accounts from adults reflecting on their favorite toys. In each of the living-room areas, a television set shows toy commercials — a feature that draws many visitors.
“I see a lot of families sitting on the couches in those room settings, as if they were a family sitting around the TV,” Unger said. “I see people all the time singing along with the commercials.”
While Unger couldn’t pinpoint what makes these toys stand the test of time — “all of the toy companies would love to figure out what that is,” he joked — he offered his thoughts on the staying power of today’s toys.
“It’s tempting to see something inherently memorable about the toys from the past that has made them stand the test of time, and then to say something about how all the digital things today won’t have the same power. But I don’t think that’s really true,” Unger said. “There’s probably some interesting possibilities emerging that combine the physical and digital, whether building sets that combine computer design and 3-D printing, or internet-of-thing smart devices.”
But that’s the future. During a recent afternoon, MOHAI’s visitors were having plenty of fun with the toys of the past.
“It’s like a trip down memory lane,” said Federico Alves, 55, of Clearwater, Fla., who visited the museum with his wife and daughter. “It shows 20th-century development of the toy industry, and we loved it.”
One particular toy brought back memories for Seattle’s Roman Rasskovski, 47, who grew up in the Soviet Union. He visited the exhibit with his wife and daughter.
“The one toy that I actually used was the Erector Set — that is the one that I had for several years, and is the only one that reminds me of my childhood,” he said. “I also noticed there was a little set that you could actually model your own toys, and we used to do that outside.”
His daughter also enjoyed seeing the exhibit.
“I like how it had a lot of hands-on stuff, how they have the commercials for a lot of the toys, and how it had the trivia part,” said Malene Rasskovski, 7. “I won it with my dad!”
Malene’s mother, Marla Swanson, 45, said she had “almost every single toy” in the ’70s section, and spent some time looking at a display that included toys that aren’t remembered as fondly, like Rat Fink (which parents hated) and Jarts (which could be dangerous).
“That was really fun to see blasts from the pasts and toys that I’d forgotten about,” Swanson said.