Small but mighty: The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures

Atop the hill at 52nd and Oak streets on UMKC’s campus is a Kansas City treasure hidden in plain sight. The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures houses the world’s largest collection of fine-scale miniatures and one of the nation’s largest antique toy collections.

Visitor Services Manager Meg Hauser has worked at the museum for over five years and is still surprised by what she finds within the displays. “Every day I literally have gone through the galleries and found something new that has piqued my interest,” Hauser said. “We have over 80,000 objects in the collection, so there’s so much opportunity to learn and explore and just investigate and get lost in your own imagination.”

The museum was established in 1982 by childhood friends Barbara Marshall, who collected miniatures, and Mary Harris Francis, who collected toys. At one point in their lives a friend told them that if they got one more thing, they’d have to open a museum. So, they did.

Divided into two floors, the first floor’s fine-scale miniature collection offers a more traditional art gallery experience, while the second floor’s toys present a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

“Having the two collections, we do have two aspects of how you can look at the museum. That’s what really sets us apart,” Hauser said. “We’re an art museum, but we’re also a history museum. There’s something about the actual social history of toys that I think connects all people.”

Among the miniatures you can find everything from tiny paintings and instruments, to complete houses, and things you can only see under a microscope—like a pair of dressed fleas or a panda painted on a grain of rice.

Fine-scale miniatures are created in close manner to their full-sized counterpart, resulting in most miniatures being fully functional. This means that locks and keys lock and unlock, drawers have dovetail joints, and if you see a candle, it can really be lit, although it would probably melt in seconds due to its small size.

The second floor features a room devoted to dolls and dollhouses. Foremost among these is the Coleman Dollhouse, standing at 9-feet tall and made for a wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1864.
As you roam the galleries, you can find toys generations of your family played with.

An art historian, Hauser loves the miniatures, but she sees the toy galleries as a beautiful “safe space” where one connects with other people through shared experiences.
“We all know what it felt like to play with a toy, whether it was a stick and rock, to a custom dollhouse, or a set of Hotwheels,” Hauser said. “So no matter what age, or what generation, or what economic status, it’s a nice unifier for us all to open up and get to know our fellow person, but then also get to know ourselves a little bit more and revisit those fun memories.”

The north and south galleries on the second floor are reserved for temporary exhibits. Currently in the North Gallery is Going Places: The Toy Collection of Jerry Smith, which explores the history of transportation toys through the personal collection of Kansas City businessman and philanthropist Jerry Smith.

Through Jan. 6, 2019, the South Gallery is exhibiting Playing for Keeps: The VFW Marble Tournaments 1947-1962. This hands-on exhibit includes a 10-foot-wide regulation-size marble ring. Marbles are available for check-out from the desk and the friendly staff is happy to teach guests how to play.

The museum has undergone renovations and expansions over the years. The 1911 mansion, which originally housed the collection, is now reserved for office and event space and has a ripe history of its own. Originally belonging to the Tureman family, it was later the home of Kansas City fashion designer Nell Donnelly—her famous kidnapping took place on the east side of the building.
In addition to their unique collection, the museum hosts both family and adults-only events throughout the year.

As part of campus, they also have work-study positions available to all UMKC students. Two positions are still open for next semester.

No matter which collection you prefer, you’ll gasp at the miniatures and reminisce among the toys. You simply can’t help it. While you’re there, be sure to pick up a scavenger hunt from the front desk. It may have a kid-friendly design, but it’s not easy. And anyway, as Hauser says, “who wants to grow up?”

Museum admission is $5 for 5 years and older. UMKC students, faculty and staff, as well as active duty military and children under 5 enter free. For information about the museum’s collection, exhibits and events visit www.toyandminiaturemuseum.org.

ceh6y6@mail.umkc.edu

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