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The Washington State History Museum opens its toy box

Monopoly, teaching children life skills. Photo credit: Christian Carvajal

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Most people can't remember old phone numbers or grade-school teachers with whom they spent five days a week, but there's a good chance they can identify dozens of Star Wars action figures, Atari 2600 games or their first Cabbage Patch Kid. Though we didn't always buy them, toys were the first things we owned. They were visible steps on the paths to our identities, the manifestations of imaginary friends and kid-scale indoctrinations to adult life. "Toys are popular culture, left behind for people to learn about how people lived," notes Mary Mikel Stump, director of audience engagement for the Washington State History Museum. "Popular culture is material culture. Material culture is history. Toys are history."

Thus the museum currently hosts "Toytopia," a traveling exhibit curated by Stage Nine Entertainment Group of West Sacramento, California. "It's really a blockbuster," said Stump. "It starts with an intro room, ‘Toys Through the Decades,' and there are those moments where you might point at (a particular decade) and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that.'"

"Because of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of consumerism," Stump continued, "the toys became suddenly mass-produced." In other words, "a lot of children had the same toy. Also, as a result of child labor laws, children weren't working. But people were moving to the urban centers, and play became a way of teaching children some life skills."

As the exhibits move deeper into the 20th century, "you start to see the evolution of plastic injected into molds," Stump explained. "The colors get brighter and they're not applied on the surface. They're not painted or carved." More striking hues appealed to infants and toddlers, whose developing optical cones give them less acute color vision than older children or adults.

The traveling show fills 6,000 square feet, boasting everything from train sets to Lego constructions to a free-to-play video arcade. "It's been really great for people of all ages, not just kids," said Stump. "As a way of tying that to Washington history and the Historical Society itself, we have two smaller exhibitions in the adjacent galleries. ‘PlayDates' are toys from our collection, the oldest of which dates from probably the 1920s ... It also focuses a little bit on toys and games that have been invented in Washington." Those include Cranium, Pictionary and Slinky Dog. "The other exhibit is ‘Collections Selections.' Everything in there with the exception of maybe three items is from our collection," said Stump. "It's a period playroom from the turn of the 20th century, a day nursery that shows the toys of that time in the context of the other decorative arts."

So make a play date of your own. You'll learn some fascinating history, take a walk down memory lane and even brush up your Dig Dug and Pole Position skills.

"TOYTOPIA," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through June 10, Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, free-$11, 1.888.BE.THERE,

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