News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Get in touch with your inner kid at the Autry's ‘Play!’ exhibit

"Play" exhibit welcome wall

Listen to story

Download this story 9MB

For kids and adults, the act of play isn't just about having fun. It's also an important developmental part of learning and understanding the world around you. The "Play!" exhibit at the Autry Museum of the American West is exploring this concept and uncovering the west's pivotal role in shaping how the world plays.

"Play" exhibit
Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West

Take Two's A Martinez and Lori Galarreta bring us this virtual tour. Their guide is Carolyn Brucken, a senior curator at the Autry. 

When you walk into the "Play!" exhibit, you're immediately greeted by the sounds of children playing with tricycles, trains, and even light sabers. 

The first thing you see is a giant astro-turf covered wall with the letters, "Go Outside" scrawled across it.

"Play" exhibit outside area
Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West

Play is both a verb and a noun, so we wanted to talk about the history and the types of play but also let people play in the space.

We wanted to start with the idea of outdoor being an important place to play. You don't need much. Sometimes it's just a sibling, a stick or a ball. So we wanted to get that sense of improvisation, of freedom that comes with outdoor play.

Toy companies that got their start in Southern California shaped the way children play both inside the house and outside of it.

So, Wham-o, Disney, Mattel – they're all Southern California stories – and skateboarding as well – that have shaped and transformed how we play today. And really, adapting play to suburbs, backyards to urban spaces, but also taking advantage of TV and film, and just kind of this entrepreneurial spirit.

As you make your way across the indoor "outside play area," which features a bear cave complete with stuffed winged bats and giant teddy bear, there's also a tree made up of all kinds of musical instruments and a set of indoor kites you can fly.

Then, you  come upon the second part of the exhibit: a life-sized playhouse. On the inside, it looks like a stylish modern-day home, except for one thing. All the furniture and decorations are small and the perfect size for kids who want to "play house."

Play has a psychological function as well as a emotional function. And part of play allows kids to try out different roles. That's an important reason why we do it as well. So here, kids can play act in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the dining room, the living room.

"Play" exhibit living room
Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West

As Carolyn Brucken explained, toys haven't always had the same function across time and cultures. 

The toys adults give kids did have gender biases and dolls are a perfect example of that. Especially the giving of baby dolls in American culture. But dolls that are thousands of years old, in Native American cultures, they might be more teaching tools. In America, they might be more about learning a role as a mother.  

As you exit the playhouse, you pass by a Lego section that features old-school erector sets, complete with interactive cranks and building stations.

"Play" exhibit erector set
Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West

It's hard for your eye not be drawn to the toy commercial wall as it lights up with the sights and sounds of advertisements from an older time. 

"Play" exhibit commercial wall
Courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West

This is the start of our "make believe" section. We start it with this commercial wall that shows eight different screens showing different commercials from one of the first children's toy commercials, Mr. Potato Head, up to Star Wars and Transformers.

There was actually a court case about whether the Transformers television show was  a commercial or a TV show. So we wanted to kind of show the development of how toy companies started marketing to kids. Especially, using video, to TV, and then to movies. Now, you have movies that are based on toy lines, versus toy lines that come out to reflect a movie.

Originally, in the 1950s, toy companies spent very little on advertising, where now, it's a huge portion of their budget.

But how are toys a story for the Autry? According to Carolyn Brucken, the history of toys is another one of those "hidden western stories."

We really wanted to look at toys as props for imagination. Especially in the 20th century, fantasy and character toys have really come to dominate 20th century play. California companies are at the heart of that. It starts with Disney through Mattel.

Candy Land is actually a western story. The inventor was a woman names Eleanor Abbott who was a San Diego school teacher. She had polio and in 1948 was in a polio ward in a San Diego hospital. She saw all of these children who were sick and bored so she invented Candy Land as a game for them to play. And then she sold it to Milton Bradley who then marketed it as this kind of children's-first-game because you didn't have to read. But that came out of a specific San Diego moment.

The yo-yo itself is ancient. It goes back to China. But the yo-yo that we think of that has a thread around the axle that you can spin, was actually invented by a Filipino immigrant to Santa Barbara named Pedro Flores who basically opened up a factory – first in Santa Barbara,  then in LA, where he was producing 30,000 yo-yos by 1929. He was bought out by Duncan who helped spur this craze across the country and in Mexico too. You start to have all these yo-yo competitions and fads.

So, why would a museum choose to feature a history on toys?

I think we really wanted an empathetic and emotional connection so they would start talking with whoever they were with about why their toys or their play matters to them, and as a way to bridge time and space. We were hoping that a kid that had never seen a Tinkertoy, or never seen Pong, or whatever it might be, can start to connect to something that was different from what they knew. I think that's a building block for what museums can do. We're just doing it at a really fundamental level through play.  

"Play" exhibit stage

Quotes edited for clarity and brevity. 

To hear the full audio postcard, click the media player above.