"Toys at MOMA"
October 11th, 2012
The New Yorker
Toys are getting less cuddly—batteries often included, use in the bathtub not advised. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the historic toys in “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, have been baffling younger visitors.
“What are those?” a recent museumgoer wailed, pounding small fists against a display case.
“Stop that!” the boy’s mother answered. “They’re blocks, O.K.?”
“But what’s inside the blocks?” the boy yelled. “What’s inside the blocks?”
A bit later, two grownups stood before the same display. One, a woman, clutched a stack of papers. The other, a man in ripped jeans, had hair that could have used a maternal patting down. Perhaps these two could offer a more satisfying answer to the boy’s query.
“One of the revolutionary things about blocks is that girls could be architects, builders, with these toys as easily as boys,” the woman, who had a crisp British accent, said.
“I love how the shapes are just really rudimentary, like, a cone, a cube, and yet you can make a tower, which is cool!” the man said gleefully.
The woman was Juliet Kinchin, a MOMA curator, an expert in Central European modernism. Her guest was Jordan Hembrough, a self-proclaimed “Star Wars” connoisseur and the host of “Toy Hunter,” a reality television series on the Travel Channel, in which he paws through the attics and basements of vintage-toy enthusiasts.
In the next gallery, the pair admired Bauhaus nursery furniture from the early nineteen-twenties.
“The cupboard door you could pull open and perform a puppet show through the window, and then you could make these boxes into a train, or a car, or giant building blocks,” Kinchin explained.
“I see a lot of people saving the simple things—the Lincoln Logs, the blocks—for their children, saying, ‘Look at what Grandma played with,’ ” Hembrough said. “I have two teen-agers, and the other day my son downloaded marbles on his iPhone. I said, ‘I’ll buy you real marbles; we’ll go outside and get down on the ground’ ”—Hembrough got onto his hands and knees and squirmed around to demonstrate—“ ‘and we’ll shoot marbles.’ ”
Kinchin walked on, past wall text from the 1915 Futurist Manifesto that read, “The Futurist toy will be very useful to the adult too, because it will keep him young, nimble, joyful, carefree, ready for anything, tireless, instinctive and intuitive.”
“Here we are—Slinky,” Kinchin said, pointing to the perennial favorite, from 1945. “The thing I remember about the Slinky is the noise, the smell of the metal, the feel of it in your little hands.”
“I can’t believe you just said smell, because that’s what collectors always talk about. When we were kids, we’d have our brand-new action figures in their packages and we’d take them out and”—Hembrough breathed deeply—“smell the plastic.” (He revealed later that in his pocket, in a Baggie, was a rare Boba Fett figurine, a kind of secret talisman, which he valued at more than a thousand dollars.)
“Play-Doh,” Kinchin said wistfully. “Yes, of all the senses, smell and taste really do trigger some intense memories.”
Passing an exhibit charting the simultaneous development of Soviet and American space-themed toys in the sixties, Hembrough remembered a call he’d recently received from a childhood friend of Neil Armstrong, who said he had a bunch of the late astronaut’s things.
“I asked, What are they? And they were tin rocket ships,” Hembrough said.
“It’s just such a primeval kid’s dream to fly, to go into outer space,” Kinchin said.
Gazing at screens displaying Tetris, Sim City, and Katamari Damacy, Kinchin said, “We’ve just started to collect these classic video games. It’s very difficult—what are you collecting? We’re collecting the interface, so it’s about intellectual design.”
Hembrough said, “After a while, the electronics break down, things burn out.”
“Everything has its own conservation and storage issues,” Kinchin said.
“Like, you don’t want to be storing blocks where there are termites,” Hembrough said. “I always say, Toys should live where you live.”
As the pair walked out, a security guard could be heard scolding a middle-aged visitor, who had just snapped a photo.
“There’s a ‘No Photography’ sign right there!” the guard said. “If I catch you doing that again, I will take away your phone.”