People and toys: a journey to the world of the imagination in the Galleries of the Grand Palais
The National Galleries at the Grand Palais in Paris are hosting a beautiful exhibition about the history of toys from 14 September 2011 to 23 January 2012. Almost 1,000 toys will be on display, from antiquity to the present day, from public and private collections in the West and Japan. An astonishing mix of tradition and innovation, this unusual exhibition on a global scale brings together some exceptional creations (the toys of royal children, automata, spaceships and outsized dolls houses) as well as more modest items (lead or plastic figures, balls and spinning tops), which have stood the test of time.
The Imperial Prince’s mechanical horse
Collection E. Hermès, Paris
© François Doury
This journey through the world of toys includes 1,000 items that tell a two-thousand-year story full of wonder and nostalgia, learning and investigation. It is a remarkable and unusual collection in terms of its scale and ambition, encompassing trains, custom-made cars, boats, flying saucers, princess dolls, antique dolls, fashion dolls, Japanese automata, all kinds of bears, Noah’s arks, video games and more besides.
A great deal more than a simple showcase for toys, the exhibition offers some genuine insights and investigates the ambiguous relationship children have with miniature reproductions of the adult world around them. What is the purpose of toys? How have they changed over time? What is the role of imitation and conversely of freedom and creativity in the way toys are used? Are toys designed to help children learn the codes and rules of the adult world? All these are questions the exhibition attempts to answer.
The event highlights the importance of toys in educating the next generation from birth onwards. “In addition to their essential role in entertainment and supporting play, toys also tell us about the relationships between adults and children, the kind of environment they want children to have and how they want to prepare them for it. Toys carry an enormous symbolic value and are an astonishing compromise between reality and illusion,” explains Bruno Girveau, the exhibition curator.
“All children talk to their toys. Toys become actors in the great drama of life,” said Baudelaire. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will find their favourite soft toy, their lucky doll, the dressing-up outfit of their dreams... and some of the magic and wonder of childhood.
The exhibition is organised into a series of different areas, including The world of animals (with Snoopy Sniffer, teddy bears and tamagotchis), The illusion of life (automata, mechanical toys and robots), Girls’ toys and Boys’ toys and The media age. Every childhood has its own heroes. Depending on when you grew up, their names would have been Babar, Bécassine, Davy Crockett, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Goldorak, Pokemon or something else entirely.
A distillation of culture and conservatism, toys are held up as a mirror to society at any particular time. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, toys were the main feature of childhood. In Europe, from the mid-19th century onwards, toys were recommended for all children, with dolls, lead soldiers, rocking horses and card games bringing fun and games into the domestic environment. Toys symbolise a carefree period, which one day must come to an end. “Growing up is first and foremost about leaving behind one’s toys and learning to live without them in order to grow into an independent adult,” explains Bruno Girveau. In Rome, young women were supposed to hand their dolls over to Venus on the eve of their wedding.
But how to bring these toys to life in an exhibition? Video artist Pierrick Sorin has designed and created some 15 original installations, from interactive exhibits to 3D projects and “optical theatres”. Plunged into an imaginary world, visitors travel through time and space. A series of entertaining, nostalgic playlets can be viewed through 3D glasses. The artist can be seen wandering through a doll’s house, creating a car pile-up and dressing up as a teddy bear. For Pierrick Sorin, toys are first and foremost about fun. His main aims were to “give the exhibition a sense of movement and create little pockets of pleasure and moments of fun.”
Children attending the exhibition’s workshops are dazzled by the history of toys. They can watch a parade of toy soldiers and meet superheroes. They can also do cooking, take care of doll babies, play with DIY tools and much more. The exhibition has been produced in conjunction with the Musée des Arts décoratifs de Paris, home to one of Europe’s largest collections of toys. Other prestigious French and international cultural institutions, including the Museum of Toys in Nuremberg, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester (United States) and the Musée du Jouet in Poissy, near Paris, have all been enthusiastic contributors to the project. The exhibition will move on to the City Art Museum in Helsinki, from 21 February to 20 May 2012.