Trip to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures

While on a road trip in early July, my 13you daughter and I decided it would be fun to spend a few days as tourists in Kansas City post-Independence Day, and of the various things we did, by far the most fun and engaging was our visit to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, located smack dab in the middle of the University of Missouri, Kansas City campus in downtown Kansas City. It’s not just a forgotten room in the basement of the Chemistry building at UMKC, however, the Museum has a stunning building all its own:

national museum toys miniatures kansas city kc umkc

Originally built around the antique toy collection of two local women, T/m, as it’s known, has since expanded to a beautiful two story facility with over 33,000 square feet of exhibit space. And a remarkably inexpensive admission fee: $5/person. Hard to complain about that entry fee, even if you’ve got a couple of kids in tow. Their collection features over 72,000 objects, making it one of the biggest toy and miniature museums in the world. Darn impressive, really.

The museum’s broken into two main sections, toys and, on the lower floor, miniatures. What are “miniatures”, you ask? Think doll houses. Think tiny. Really tiny. That’s what miniatures are, and the detail work, the precision and the sheer complexity of what they have on exhibit will take your breath away. I felt myself literally holding my breath when looking at the most detailed of the exhibits, just trying to imagine how it could even be created by hand!

Let’s walk through the toy section first, then I’ll come back and talk about about the miniatures exhibit, since that’s the order we had traveling through the exhibit areas ourselves. We started out with their bright, cheery exhibit of toys by decade, and, yes, I had some as a kid!

old toy exhibit, national museum toys miniatures kc

It’s interesting to see which toys are still popular. Dolls? Yup. Yahtzee? Definitely. Meccano and Erector Sets? Not so much. Parcheesi? Was it ever actually popular? Marionettes? Now they’re bluetooth powered and cost $900 🙂

A toy museum can’t help but veer into the politics of toys and playthings too, showing how the toys reflect the values and cultural mores of their time too. Like this:

roosevelt jungle trip adventure toy set

If you can’t read the book included, it says “Roosevelt’s African Trip“. This was back way before we really wrestled across our entire society with the role of blacks and their portrayals in contemporary media and, yes, toys. The actual trip being commemorated was in 1909 by Teddy Roosevelt, so odds are good the toy set was from a year or two later.

More offensive toys? There were wartime toys that disparaged our enemies (a surprisingly common occurrence; there are entire Web sites just about German anti-American and anti-Jewish games and toys, for example) but even before that, ever think about the cowboys and indians toys? Like this:

wild indians antique historical toy

The miniatures aren’t too bad, but look closely at the cover art, portraying what’s presumably a Native American raid on an American settler’s cabin and the cavalry (the guys wearing hats) coming to get rid of those pesky indians! Nowadays it’s a bit difficult to look at these toys and think about the subtle programming and reinforcement of stereotypes, but the better question is about what toys are still channeling our children’s belief systems without us realizing it?

More than just a collection of toys, however, the Museum had a lot of exhibit space dedicated to the business of manufacturing and selling toys:

business of toys, national museum toys miniatures

Not hugely interactive, there were still some interesting hands-on exhibits that captured my daughter’s attention more than I think she expected. But it was the toys that I really enjoyed.

And darned if you can’t avoid the politics of games and toys when you look at historical titles. Here’s another one from about 1919 – Spear ‘Em – that is a dart set with cutout people that you’re trying to knock over. Yes, it’s not even killing animals, it’s reinforcing that kids should be eager to kill anyone not like them:

spear 'em dart throwig game

And we wonder where xenophobia comes from? Yikes.

Moving ahead to World War II, what were little ones going to do while Daddy and, to a far lesser extent, Mummy was off fighting overseas? Play Little Army Nurse:

little army nurse play set

Funny how that Play Wrist Watch looks so darn much like an Apple Watch, eh? Rather forward-thinking of them.

There’s also a special exhibit on Toys related to the Kansas staple story The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, the girl at the center of the story, is of course from Kansas, though at one point she does tell her dog “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more!”

toys from the land of oz wizard

Are you looking closely at the photo above? If so, you’ve already noticed the Wicked Witch of the West’s ruby red slippers… didja know that in the book the slippers are silver, though, and that they were changed to red to show off the color process used in the movie? The exhibit shows some of the different style of ruby slippers they tried too, a neat part that many people probably don’t even notice, but you can see them in this photo:

costume props the wizard of oz

The costumes shown are also from the original motion picture production. The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 and is a delightful cinematic masterpiece to this day. Even with the creepy flying monkeys!

We also are quick to assume that films like Star Wars invented movie merchandising, but it’s been going on as long as there’s been a motion picture house to show films to children. It’s no surprise that toys and games were spawned from The Wizard of Oz, but I was a bit surprised just how much there was:

wizard of oz inspired toys games

Cool stuff, eh? And the idea of a game that had a big enough play surface that it was a “walk a-long game”? Pretty cool!

MINIATURES AND REALLY TINY MINIATURES

Having spent maybe an hour just exploring the toys exhibit, we headed downstairs to be completely astonished by the miniatures exhibit. Yes there are some beautiful doll houses and all, but it’s the tiny, the really tiny, that is so amazing. But let’s start as you walk in:

dolls miniatures museum national toy

It was around the corner, almost in a stairwell that had the doll house (miniature house?) that most impressed me:

miniature english cottage doll house

That front door’s maybe 6″ high, to give you a sense of scale, and the back is open for play / viewing. Notice behind it the gothic castle too. The detail, the work that goes into these is really astonishing and must represent thousands of hours of toil. I just can’t imagine that level of patience and persistence. Quite impressive, to say the least, and the exact opposite of the assembly line injection molded plastic toys that are all too commonly our children’s playthings.

Look more closely at some of the rooms and exhibits and you’d never know that they’re tiny dioramas, maybe two or three feet across in total. Like these:

miniature diorama american southwest

The American Southwest, it doesn’t look at all like a model, but a scorpion would be bigger than that area rug!

Or this one, shot through a miniature window:

victorian home, miniature doll house diorama

Or, heck, how about this, a room that looks right out of the Palace of Versailles?

baroque room doll house diorama miniature

Keep in mind that the tiny chair in the middle’s seat is smaller than a quarter. Just fantastic work!

And, finally, the exhibit also includes individual elements that are insanely small. Like this Ouija board that is about the size of a postage stamp:

tiny ouija board

My daughter and I spent almost two hours in the museum and I’m ready to go back with a better camera and spend half a day. It’s really a great place to visit and fun for all ages as each age group reminisces about favorite toys and games, and everyone marvels at the miniatures. Highly recommended.

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, 5235 Oak St, Kansas City, Missouri. — toyandminiaturemuseum.org

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