Toys, Toys, Toys!

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Mexican Display More Than Just Fun and Games

Not that long ago—before computer and video games, mass manufacturing and Toys “R” Us—people made toys for children with whatever materials were at hand. In some cultures, they still do. And in some countries such as Mexico, making toys from what’s within reach is a time-honored tradition.

The commitment to that tradition is currently on fine display at the Art Museum of the Americas, a former residence on the grounds of the Organization of American States that exudes cozy warmth with its hardwood floors, spiral wooden staircase and beautifully tiled loggia.

Although the show’s official title—“Mexico: Festival of Toys”—implies fun and games, there is a serious side to this exhibit as well. Many of the more than 600 handmade objects are brought out only once a year in careful displays for religious festivals. And the exquisite craftsmanship evident among these hundreds of items isn’t what you’d find in an ordinary Thomas Train set or Barbie doll.

For example, elaborate papier-mâché skeletons created by some of Mexico’s finest artisans for “Day of the Dead” festivities could easily be coveted by a serious collector. In short, “Festival of Toys” has much to delight the young and young at heart, but there is more going on here than mere frivolity.

The exhibition clearly distinguishes between its themes of play and celebration. On the first floor of the museum, a large room has been converted into a playroom with four large toy boxes overflowing with objects to explore and enjoy. A 10-foot-tall doll dubbed Maria oversees the activities.

Indeed, on a recent visit, the museum guide was almost drowned out by the boisterous sounds of children having fun. This is no stodgy museum-going trip to please mom and dad. Children can romp on an oversize sofa and chair, play on drums or other musical instruments, cuddle soft fabric dolls, or amuse themselves with a variety of wooden toys. Just going through these boxes has got to be one of the most hands-on experiences that a child—or an adult for that matter—will ever have in a museum. The exhibition also includes a workshop in an upstairs room where children are instructed on how to make piñatas and cornhusk dolls.

More for show than play, the miniatures are fascinating. One of the most charming creations on display is a miniature basket shop, complete with the owner, workers and a customer. Another dollhouse portrays customers seated at tables dining on tamales.

The exhibition represents many of Mexico’s cultural influences. From the U.S. border states, there is a cowboy theme, including guns, a holster and slingshots. Tiny bullfighters show the influence of the Spaniards. Continuing with miniatures, there is a tiny traveling carnival with circus performers and Ferris wheels made from Coca-Cola and beer cans.

Transportation is another major theme here, with trucks, buses and cars assembled from wood, tin cans and other reusable items—some complete with passengers. There are also wooden whistles carved in the shapes of turtles, fish and squirrels, as well as monkey and raccoon penny banks made from coconuts.

But other rooms highlight the symbolic importance of “toys,” and these fine crafts are not for touching or playing with. Puppets and marionettes depict famous Mexican cartoon characters or significant figures from Mexican culture. The cornhusk doll is also present in many variations. Used in celebrations of every religious festival, it conveys a charming yet powerful simplicity that is evocative of the rural and indigenous artisans who create it.

The museum has dedicated the house loggia to a color-filled Christmas display, in which cornhusk dolls are dressed for nativity and other scenes. Large piñatas hang from the ceiling in recognition of the unique Mexican tradition of “Las Posadas,” which begins Dec. 16. Rounding out the scene is a Christmas tree decorated with tin ornaments and straw-chain garlands in vivid hues, while a brightly colorful band of tin musicians stand poised to deliver Christmas carols.

The Art Museum of the Americas is the first stop in the United States for this traveling exhibition from Mexico City, and following the whirlwind holiday shopping season, there is definitely something refreshing about seeing dolls, games and other toys that have been carefully made by hand, without the benefit of advanced technology. The simple cornhusk doll may not be Barbie, but it is an icon nonetheless.

Mexico: Festival of Toys through March 16 Organization of American States Art Museum of the Americas 201 18th Street, NW For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit www.museum.oas.org.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999