Make a Playdate at the Public Museum for “Toys!”

Entrance to the Grand Rapids Public Musuem's "Toys!" exhibit.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) is tying together nostalgia and pop culture in its latest exhibit, “Toys!” Exploring toys throughout time, this chronological walkthrough begins in 1945 with the Baby Boomers and ends in the recent Millennial era.

GR|MAG had the opportunity to speak with Alex Forist, GRPM’s chief curator, and Kate Kocienski, vice president of marketing and public relations, about the inspiration for this exhibit and how it has morphed from an idea to reality.

“We routinely bring travel exhibits into the museum, and one of the ideas that had come up was a toy exhibit,” said Kocienski. “We looked at all the exhibits that were out there for toys and thought we could probably do this better than any of the traveling ones that we came across.”

“It was probably about a year and a half ago that we started having the conversations,” said Forist. “It just seemed like pop culture—toys specifically—and nostalgia are all things that are in people’s consciousness right now.”

The GRPM Toys! exhibit includes an arcade where visitors can enjoy hands on fun.
The GRPM Toys! exhibit includes an arcade where visitors can enjoy hands-on fun.

So, the museum started putting an exhibit together. A budget was established and diligent acquisition through antique shops, flea markets and eBay pushed the exhibit along.

There was also a great deal of community assistance. In fact, many of the toys are donations to the permanent collection. And, those who were not ready to part with their toys were able to loan them to GRPM—about a third of the toys in the exhibit are loaned. Locals also had input on the design.

“We had experts that came in,” said Kocienski. “They gave us feedback on how we could make it more inclusive, so everyone could benefit from seeing it.”

The exhibit has two main themes, the first being the significance of play for all ages.

“The signage and text and interactive elements in the exhibit reinforce the idea that play is important for so many reasons,” said Forist. “For the brain development of children, for the stress relief of adults, for social interactions and communication, physically moving your body. All of these things make play important.”

The exhibit spans from 1945 to the present day. See if your favorite childhood toy is on display.
The exhibit spans from 1945 to the present day. See if your favorite childhood toy is on display.

The second theme is the similarity of toys’ functions over time. Toys have changed a great deal—Mr. Potato Head used to be eyes, noses, ears and shoes you would stick into a real potato. Now it has a plastic frame, but the motor skills and fun kids get from playing with Mr. Potato Head are essentially the same. G.I Joe, Barbies and Beanie Babies also serve a similar purpose: to fuel the imagination.

Visitors will also learn several fun facts—did you know the inventor of the Super Soaker was also a NASA scientist? And experience interactive elements, like a toy guessing game, a Hot Wheels race track and an eighties arcade.

Awash in nostalgia, “Toys!” covers four generations worth of the history of play in an entertaining and well thought out way. There are familiar toys and hidden surprises. People of all ages are sure to have fun and remember the powerful and beneficial influence of play.

“Toys!” opens on Saturday, Oct. 27 and will remain at GRPM through September 2019. Viewing of the exhibit is free with admission.

*Photos by Molly Bruns

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