- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

All over the world, toys speak a common language — the language of play. Children across cultures and across generations will push a toy bus, strum a guitar or care for a doll.

“Mexico: A Festival of Toys,” an exhibit running at the Art Museum of the Americas in Northwest through March 16, captures the universal appeal of toys and combines it with the bright and creative artistry of Mexico.

The exhibit is made up of more than 600 objects and was organized by the Papalote Children’s Museum of Mexico City. The stop in Washington is the start of a multiyear tour of the United States and Europe.

Lydia Bendersky, director of cultural programming at the Art Museum of the Americas, says the museum is on a concentrated mission to attract more families. An exhibit full of toys is a great way to meet that goal.

“It is a happy coincidence that the exhibit opened up just before Christmas,” she says. “There is a fabulous children’s museum in Mexico City, but there is not one here in Washington, so this is a way to expand the scope of our museum.”

The exhibit will appeal even to visitors who think they are too old for toys. Anyone with an appreciation for folk art, Latin American art or crafts will enjoy dropping in to see the brightly colored pinatas, handmade dolls, wooden circus sets and handcrafted rocking horses.

The purpose of the displays is highlighted in English and Spanish in giant cloth picture books. Panels in the books explain the collection’s connection to the past by featuring old craft traditions and making archaeological reproductions. The toys in the collection date from the 1920s through today.

The book panels explain that the exhibit is focused on two themes: celebrate, which is the many toys that have a connection to Mexican culture, holidays and festivals; and play, the simple joy children everywhere get from working a slingshot or spinning a top, for instance.

Some of the toys that have a connection to Mexican culture include oversized skeletons dressed as a bride and groom, representing Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival; matracas (rattles) that are shaken on Easter Sunday; and star-shaped Mexican pinatas, which are used in the nine processions (posadas) leading up to Christmas.

More secular connections to culture include puppets, cardboard replicas of bullfighters and bulls, and cornstalk art. The picture books’ panels explain the latter’s traditional process, from growing cornstalks to grinding them to obtain materials needed to make models.

The play section is a little more universal, but it also explains the worldwide origins of traditional toys such as marbles and tops. Visitors will learn that the yo-yo was first mentioned in Greece in 500 B.C. and that mastering a Mexican balero (ball and cup toy) takes lots of practice.

There is a section devoted to transportation toys, such as vintage buses and cars, along with planes and boats. There are dolls of all sorts, from larger ones wearing handmade clothing to those made by the Seri Indians, which have no faces except in the imagination of the children playing with them.

Mexican doll-making is a time-honored tradition, the exhibit explains.

“The concept has not changed in centuries,” the panels state. “But the materials used to make dolls and their styles have changed over time. An interesting fact is that Mexican dolls tend to be adult representations. They are dressed in the same types of costumes worn by the people in their communities, but they also form part of any child’s fantasy world, becoming any girl’s best friend for life.”

There is much to see in the exhibit’s first three rooms, but the most fun comes in the hands-on playroom. The museum has taken an entire room and filled it with reproductions of many of the toys, making a child’s wonderland. There are hand-painted tables and chairs where children are encouraged to color and create with crafts. There are musical instruments to play and stick horses to ride. There are dozens of brightly colored balls to throw, a soccer foosball table and traditional games. There are hand puppets and picture books in Spanish. There is a giant couch piled with pillows, where visitors are encouraged to flop and bounce.

Ms. Bendersky says the hands-on room has been the highlight of the visit for many.

“It has been extremely successful,” she says. “It is great to have something so family-friendly here in winter, when many kids can’t get out to play. Lots of school and day care groups have taken advantage of it.”

The museum also is holding craft workshops Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Children work with museum staff to create fun works related to the exhibit, such as a pinata or doll clothes.


Location: “Mexico: Festival of Toys,” is at the Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW.

Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; it is closed Monday and on federal holidays.

Admission: Free

Parking: Street and metered parking are available nearby.

More information: 202/458-6016 or www.museum.oas.org

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