A World of Toys

Last weekend I paid a visit to Singapore’s MINT Museum of Toys. The idea holds promise: over 8,500 vintage and collectible toys from 40 different countries. Given that alone, it should be a great museum. So let’s start with what works. The museum has a few impressive rare toys, including an “Alice” doll owned by Alice Liddell of Alice in Wonderland fame, a Mickey Mouse hurdy gurdy, and figurines still in their boxes (though I wonder about their claim that there are only two Batman figures in boxes in the whole world).

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I was happy to find a lot of familiar figures, including Peter Rabbit …

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… the whole (original) Star Wars gang …

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… Tintin (in many languages, including Dutch, which is the version I grew up with — I had no idea that Kuife had another name until late in my teenage years) …

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… Noddy …

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… and the Smurfs!

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I was a sucker for Smurf figurines growing up, and while I can’t remember the exact makeup of my tiny collection, I’m sure I owned at least one or two of these (though I know I possessed neither what Prescott dubbed “Culturally Inappropriate Smurf” nor “Cultural Appropriation Smurf,” which feature prominently in the center below).

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Many of the items on display made me smile because they seemed so random. For example, we have a frog piloting a flying saucer …

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… a boy pulling the tail of a bull (next to a pig who seems to be making pancakes) …

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… and Disney dwarves who come from the “Hygienic Textile Toys” company:

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Also, in what seemed to be a precursor of the modern day cat video, there were lots and lots of cat wind-up toys:

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I liked that the museum tried to pay attention to representing toys from all around the globe. Unsurprisingly, much of the collection hails from East Asia, and toys from Japan and China are particularly well represented. I loved this communist mining doll from 1960s China …

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… especially when contrasted with this flying saucer from the Japanese Ultraman series of the same era:

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They also have a lovely section devoted to the Door of Hope project, a doll-making endeavor started by western missionary women in China in 1901 to try to keep girls out of brothels. The missionaries taught the girls how to sew and craft dolls so that they would be able to earn a living wage. The museum has about a dozen of these handmade dolls on display, including this version of a Manchu woman:

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There are a smattering of toys from places like Argentina, Mexico, and Turkey, a small shelf dedicated to Kazakhstan …

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… and a tiny area with toys from the Netherlands (as a side note, the writing on the robot’s chest translates to “My Pistons Rattle!”):

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But you often can’t tell what toys come from what countries — they’re all presented in a jumble:

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This “cram everything into a small space” version of curation drove me crazy, and was a large part of why I liked the museum much less than I’d hoped to. The MINT museum doesn’t have a lot of space to start with — it has to fit itself into five stories of what is, essentially, a tall shophouse — and rather than select certain toys for display, the curators seem to have put out every single thing in the collection.

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There is an organizational structure — “outerspace” on the top floor, “characters,” on the second, on so on — and there’s even some attempt to organize within the different areas, but it often feels more like a mish-mash of toys than anything else. Prescott didn’t mind that so much (to him, it felt like the tumble of toys in a toy box); to me, it felt like a missed presentation opportunity.

My other major objections to this museum were: (1) the lighting, which makes most of the toys hard to see, because it’s all sort of yellow and dark; (2) the height of the cases, which made it impossible for your average adult to view all of the toys (I’m just over 5’7″, and I had no hope of seeing the top shelf), and (3) the paucity of signage. Sometimes you’d get a valuation tag — here’s a robot worth $3,500 — but no further explanation.

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The lack of information or curatorial narrative bothered me most when it came to issues of race and culture that the toys (should) evoke. On the plus side, I appreciated the museum’s attempt to address race in its Golliwog exhibit. The curator’s notes state that these dolls were “the second-most popular toy [in the world] in the mid-20th century” and invites the viewer to look at them “as a historical reminder of the need for racial sensitivity and our social responsibility to eliminate racism.”

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That said, there were culturally problematic toys in many other places in the museum, and these went entirely unaddressed (one example would be the Nutty Mad Indian hopping toy).

I wasn’t a big fan of the creepy toys, but I guess those come with the territory …

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… and I had to scratch my head at the rather random (if also delightful) enamel sign collection. Why are enamel signs part of a toy museum?

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Even the museum’s name — the MINT Museum of Toys” is hard for me to wrap my head around. “MINT” stands for “Moment of Nostalgia and Imagination with Toys,” which is a mouthful, and if you wrote the whole thing out, you would have the “Moment of Nostalgia and Imagination with Toys Museum of Toys.” Phew!

There’s a good collection here, but this museum would have to change a lot to attract more visitors. I am surprised that there isn’t more here for kids; it’s too vertically arranged for them to be able to see very much, and there are no play areas. This feels more like a collector’s museum for a very tall person, which I saw as a curatorial throwback. But I don’t want to be too negative, so to end on a lighter note, here I am with a real toy from the movie Toys!

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