Combining hands-on fun with history, a new exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West welcomes kids of all sizes and those who used to be one to come and “Play!” Opening on Father’s Day, June 18, 2017, the exhibit looks at play as shared by children across cultures and times. It also features the things they played with, from early skates and skateboards to classic video games, and various toys to play with at the museum.
Through more than 200 objects, Play! explores the role of toys and games in children’s lives. The imaginative, creative exhibit design uses dolls, board games, outdoor play equipment, dress up fantasy play, video games, and more to educate about historical toy trends and to entertain young visitors who do not have patience to study the accompanying signage. The Autry displays highlight universal elements of play while emphasizing their social meanings in the west.
The Autry also shows how some toys have evolved through the years. There are bicycles, dolls, and even ViewMasters from different decades to compare and contrast. There is even a 1930 Mickey Mouse stuffed figure.
“The Play! exhibition draws on the breadth and diversity of our Autry collections to tell universal stories of children in the American West. This exhibition captures the curiosity and whimsy that are alive when children play,” according to the museum’s president and CEO W. Richard West, Jr.
Many favorite children’s stories include a portal that invites and entices us into a secret world just beyond the everyday, whether it is the wardrobe to Narnia or the brick wall of Diagon Alley,” said the exhibit’s curator, Carolyn Brucken, who is the Autry’s Curator of Western Women’s History. “We believe that when people cross the threshold into the exhibition, they will enter a transformational portal into an imaginative and surprising world.”
Once inside the portal, visitors will find the exhibition is organized into four thematic sections:
- Go Outside! – This section looks at outdoors activities that develop coordination and strength, such as balls and lawn games. There is a big wheel bicycle from 1880s. There were no gears, so the big front wheel with pedals attached enabled riders to go farther and faster as they pedaled. That artifact sits alongside a Gene Autry girls bike from the 1950s decorated as a horse. The section also features a reading cave filled with children’s books and giant stuffed animals. Besides the stuffed animals, the exhibit acknowledges that pets are children’s partners in play, too. There are several pictures of kids with their dogs, including a 1909 image of a Native American girl hugging her puppy.
- Learning to Be a Grown-up – Many toys allow children to mimic adult responsibilities, such as baby dolls and kitchen sets. Toys like tea sets, toy soldiers, and Red Ryder air rifles reflect gender and social roles. The exhibition showcases some of the Autry’s doll collection. It includes a Shirley Temple doll, Native American dolls, a corn-husk one, and dolls made in the 1960s and 19702 by African American–owned Shindana Toy Company. That was before ethnic versions of Barbie appeared (circa 1980). There are Erector Sets from the 1940s. Visitors can also use Legos or log cabin pieces to build their own creations. There are also older versions of educational toys and games, such as Milton Bradley’s Candyland and a classic version of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly. Additionally, the section includes a playhouse and other interactive areas.
- Make Believe – The advent of television, commercialism in movies, and character figures dominated toys in the last 60 years. A media wall at the entrance to the section shows several famous commercials advertising toys directly to children. At one point, the exhibit shows the most popular toys or activities by sex in 1896, 1921, and 1959. Dolls, cards, balls, and marbles carry through the ages. But, the rise of baseball, football, and basketball is reflected on the boys’ later lists. So is the impact of television in the 1950s. Playing “Cops and Robbers” or “Bows and Arrows” make the list in 1959, reflecting the popularity at the time of “Gunsmoke,” “Dragnet,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Bonanza,” and “The Lone Ranger.” Additionally, Make Believe explores negative stereotypes reflected in toys, such as the American Indian versus cowboys action sets. Finally, the section features dress up clothes for young attendees to put on and create their own make-believe experiences in a stage setting.
- Game Changer – No exploration of toys could exist without a look at the advent of the video game. This section runs the gamut from early 1970s Atari to the more recent Guitar Hero. It provides visitors with opportunities to play classic games and contemporary ones.
The Autry museum is dedicated to sharing the stories and experiences of the American West. The facility is located near the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park. The Autry will welcome kids of all sizes to “Play!” and learn about the toys and games that educated and inspired children in the area for over 100 years through Jan. 7, 2018. Few museum exhibits work for all ages, but this is clearly one. Come Play!
By Dyanne Weiss
The Autry The Autry Presents Play! June 18, 2017–January 7, 2018
Girl’s Gene Autry bicycle, made by Monark Silver King Company, 1950s. Donated by Bill Ward. Photo courtesy of Autry Museum of the American West
American high-wheeler bicycle, made by H.B. Smith Machine Co., circa 1885. Photo by Dyanne Weiss