Museum Miniatures: Maximum Fun

 

written by Caroline Turner

Caroline Turner is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for the spring 2018 semester. Caroline is a current student at Simmons School of Information Science pursuing her Masters in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management. Caroline’s love for history and research grew from her experience on her family’s farm in upstate New York, where she enjoyed discovering tiny antique haircurlers, learning about the history of her ancestors and the region, and turning the cows out to pasture.

  

As a child, my favorite games were vast imaginary scenes complete with horses, castles, action figures, dolls, matchbox cars, and stuffed animals. I loved the quiet theater of it, and how a tiny shift of one toy could signify large transformation in the story playing out before me. When I became this spring’s Elvira Growdon Intern, I was drawn to these toys that encouraged imaginary play in the collections at Boston Children’s Museum (BCM). I was thrilled to find an assortment of miniature toy soldiers that evoked a wonderful sense of nostalgia and had endless research possibilities.

Toy soldiers were found in Egyptian tombs, and were first made from wood, stone, or clay, specifically for nobility. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, lead figures were made for the noble families in Germany and France. In the nineteenth century, the increases in metals, industry, and nationalism in European countries resulted in the increase of toy soldier production. German toy makers emerged as the early leaders in lead soldier manufacturing. German makers specialized in “flats” which essentially looked like cutouts on a small stand. The owner of the toy shop would decide on a subject, and then commission a draughtsman to make a drawing of the figures. An engraver would then transfer these drawings onto slate to create a mold for the molten metal. Because the figures were flat, they required less metal to produce. Once the figures were made and cooled, they would be handed over to women and children to paint. Once they were painted, they were sold by the toy shop. While the German flats in the Boston Children’s Museum Collections are perhaps from centuries later than the earliest production boom, they still fit the classic size and were made using the same technique.

The subjects of these German figures were often educational in nature. During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of how their children played and learned. Draughtsmen and engravers often looked to scholarly material for inspiration. They also looked to fine art, which often emphasized antique nudes. One favorite subject was Roman battles, especially against European groups like the Gauls. Of the three German sets at BCM, two of them are a Roman Camp and the Romans fighting the Gauls. Since the subjects of the figures, and the children playing with them, were mostly male, and because the toys were for educational purposes, having a few nude or naked figures was deemed acceptable. The Roman Battle set at the Museum includes a few naked and dying men on the battlefield.

Meanwhile in Great Britain, English toy makers were looking for a way to produce toy miniatures in a more efficient manner. William Britain made the technological breakthrough in 1893: hollow casting. This allowed toy makers to make round metal figures that, because, they were hollow, were even cheaper to produce than the flats. Britain’s toy company, aptly named “Britains” became the world leader in toy soldier production. He churned out different regiments from around the British Empire, including the Scots Guard and Bengal Lancers. At BCM, there are many sets of Britains Soldiers, including the Canadian Mounted Police and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Historians also differ on the purported historical accuracy of the miniatures. Some companies wanted to churn out as many different sets as cheaply as possible, and so they used the same molds but painted the figures to be different companies or even from different time periods or places. A mold of a running man might suffice for both a Roman soldier and a World War I soldier. Other companies, however, very meticulously made detailed and individualized molds for different sets. At BCM, I struggled to identify the manufacturer of a Coronation Parade set celebrating the 1937 Coronation of King George IV and Queen Elizabeth II. Many toy British toy companies issued a set that year, and they all incorporated the minute details of the carriage, the horses, and the guards involved. All the sets, therefore, look extremely similar.

  

Historically, miniature sets have even been accurate enough to train real soldiers. During World War II, miniature tanks, planes, and soldiers were used to teach new recruits how to quickly identify and differentiate allies from enemies. And before World War II, during the 19th century, European military leaders instituted wargames, or “Kriegspiel” into military training. These games taught military tactics and maneuvers as well as map reading, as trainees moved toy soldiers across various diagrams.


Perhaps it is with this history in mind that some historians have argued that toy soldiers promoted violence, and even led to both World Wars. After all, Winston Churchill himself attributed his military career to the influence of his large toy soldier collection. The more current school of thought, however, is that children do not become more attuned to violence from playing with toy soldiers. Instead, children can learn valuable skills from carefully and patiently setting up their soldiers, and by cataloging their collection. Imaginary games can teach children about being in control of complex situations, planning ahead, and organizing the details.

Many families in the 19th century peacefully incorporated their toy soldiers into their nativity scenes along with putz sheep and other small figures. Complex landscapes often included natural materials like moss and branches as well as the toy soldiers, carved animals, and nativity figurines.

To close my internship here at the Museum, I was able to set up my own scene mixing a variety of soldiers throughout time and place with other toys such wooden zoo animals and putz sheep, paying homage to the history of the toy soldier and the variety of imaginative play. I hope you will be able to visit the Museum and discover this scene of miniatures in the Collections window on the second floor.

References
Kenneth Brown,”Modelling for War?: Toy Soldiers in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain,” Journal of Social History 24, no. 2 (Winter, 1990):

Thomas Mannack, “The Ancient World in Miniature: German Flat Tin Figures of the 19th and 20th Centuries”, in Imagines, La Antigüedad en les Artes Escénias y Visuales, P. Castillo et al. (eds.), (La Rioja 2008)

Dave Gathman, “Toy Soldiers Trace Nearly All of History—But Not Very Accurately     ” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2015.

The Fish of Māui : Te Ika a Māui

Kolie Swavely is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections Management and Curatorial Practice for summer 2017. Her work at Boston Children’s Museum has focused on cataloging and digitizing the Polynesian collection and finding cultural materials that connect to stories, myths, and legends around the world. She is completing a graduate certificate in Museum Studies at Tufts University.

Hello! Or, as the greeting goes in New Zealand, Kia Ora!

As the current E. Growdon Intern at Boston Children’s Museum, I work within collection’s storage, a place that some could compare to the likes of a secret garden. Now, imagine that garden filled not with flowers, but with ethnographic artifacts and pieces of cultural history collected by world travelers over 100 years ago!

As museums continue to care for their collections, ensuring that each and every piece of art and artifact is in the best condition possible, it is easy to lose track of the stories each one tells, and has yet to tell. Like a fish to a glittering lure, there is always an artifact that catches your eye, beckoning to be explored and revived. Here at Boston Children’s Museum, I myself have been hooked. While carefully documenting objects, I continue to uncover many that speak to me; and this fishhook I present today definitely speaks loudly of its cultural origin, the Māori of New Zealand.

Fishhook/ “Matau” Culture of Origin: Māori of New Zealand. Object ID: OS 78. Collection: Oceania; Polynesia. Materials: Bone, Abalone, Wood, Sennit Cord. Dimensions: 1.125” x 0.625” x 3.75”. Collected by Miss Lucy M. Prince, 1898. Donated, 1915

This beautiful fishhook (above) was donated to Boston Children’s Museum in 1915, Continue reading

Hidden Features: Microphotography

Boston Children’s Museum collects and houses many unique artifacts and specimens from around the world. Sometimes, we find artifacts with hidden unique features. In one of the many shelves in collection’s storage, there sits a Swiss chalet model, measuring roughly 2 inches tall, among a drawer of other Swiss miniatures. On the front of the model, the words “Rigi Kaltbad” are carved. Upon searching “Rigi Kaltbad” online, I learned that it is a historic resort area in the Swiss Alps. This little model, which was donated in 1942, was likely a souvenir novelty acquired on someone’s travels in Switzerland. One of the model’s interesting features includes its roof flipping to the side to uncover an area for an inkwell, but the chimney contains the hidden unique feature.

    

A very small piece of glass is situated in the chimney, and by holding the glass to a light source and then looking into the chimney, it reveals 4 microphotographs! For each image, they measure about 1 millimeter wide, which is about the size of a pencil’s tip. These types of viewing devices are called Stanhopes and were invented by René Dagron around 1857. Stanhopes came in an array of objects from pens, rings, pendants, and many other objects.

View from the back of the chimney glass, where 4 microphotographs are seen.

The 4 microphotographs in our object display and label areas of the Swiss Alps including Rigi Kaltbad, Rigi Staffel, Schnurtobel-Brücke, and Rigi Känzli. When searching those labels online, I found similar historic images of these areas from the early 1900s that match the sites and imagery in the microphotographs. I then experimented with trying to capture the 4 photographs. Since the museum does not have a microscope with the ability to take pictures, I went through a trial and error process to find the best way to capture the 4 microphotographs. I attempted different angles and lighting with a macro lens and even the museum’s exhibit microscope component, Scope on a Rope, but unfortunately none of those options worked. Lastly, I decided to try and use my iPhone, and surprisingly, it worked better than the other options! Explore the images and video below as you take a virtual peak at a Stanhope!

    

    

 

Source:

The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science by Michael R. Peres

 

Vacation Exploration: The Science of Luminaria

light-celebrations-luminariaLuminaria are a beautiful addition to these longer winter nights, and you may especially encounter these glowing paper lanterns along driveways, sidewalks, or even on houses on Christmas and New Years Eve. While they are traditionally made using paper bags with small candles inside, why not turn luminaria into a science activity? Because, you know, science. Below is a description for how you can investigate basic circuitry with your children, and create something beautiful as a result. And it’s a way for you to find utility in all of those no-longer-working holiday lights that you just can’t bring yourself to throw away. Life is good.

 

Suggested Materials

  • D or C-cell batteries (2 per luminaria)
  • 1 string of holiday lights (even one that is not working any more). From this string of lights, you will prepare:
    • Stripped individual light bulbs (see instructions below)
    • Stripped wire pieces, 6 inches long (see below)
  • Scissors and wire strippers (optional)
  • Masking tape or electrician’s tape
  • Small paper lunch bags (white or brown)

Preparation

If this is your first time playing with batteries and bulbs, you can try the “Lighting a Light Bulb” activity from Boston Children’s Museum’s “Beyond the Chalkboard” afterschool curriculum. It serves as a good foundation for this activity. Just replace the word “students” with “kids” in the instructions. Or with the word “me”, if you’re awesome enough to be playing around too.

There is some preparation for this activity, but you and your kids can do it together. It looks like a lot, but it is quite simple – the instructions below are just very detailed. And once you have it done, you’ll have bulbs and wire to use for years to come! Continue reading

Eleanor’s Adventures in Wonderland

Two summers ago, I went “down the rabbit hole” of dollhouse furniture in the Museum’s collection (https://bostonchildrensmuseum.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/down-the-rabbit-hole/) With hundreds of pieces of previously uncatalogued dollhouse furnishings, one of my interns finally picked up where I left off. Read more about her adventures in here with Boston Children’s Museum collections…

IMG_7593My seven year old self would be extremely jealous of the position I’m currently in. For the past few months I’ve been helping digitize records of Boston Children’s Museum’s dollhouse furniture collection as the Growdon Collections Intern. Growing up an avid doll-lover, memories of playing with my own dollhouse are some of my strongest; and one of my favorite places to go – and drag my unwilling family to – was an independent doll and dollhouse store. Getting the chance to dive headfirst into the endless drawers of miniatures at Boston Children’s Museum is literally my childhood dream!

It’s my last day as Growdon Intern and as I look back fondly on my time here, I’m astounded at how much I’ve learned. It’s hard to appreciate the work the Collections team does when visiting Boston Children’s Museum for a short time, with 24 window displays, and special programs only showing a small percentage of the range of over 50,000 objects! Continue reading

Borrowed and Returned

ExhibitOne of the most frequently asked questions I have here in collections is, “How did the Museum get all this stuff?!” (Considering how eclectic our collections are, that question
is usually asked with a hint of awe and wonder.) For the vast majority of materials in the collection, the answer is simply that they were gifts or donations to the Museum. Occasionally items are purchased; occasionally items are “found in collections” (which is just what it sounds like – an object with no documentation that has been lost to time and storage); and occasionally items are loaned. Well, in this past year, one old loan has been of particular interest. Continue reading

Look Closer

Benjamin, Cranston, RI, Age 9 bruiserdog77@gmail.com Macro April 21 2015-033Working with our collections I was recently tasked with choosing objects to be highlighted in Boston Children’s Museum’s Macro Photography program. Macro Photography is an art form which can turn even the most mundane leaf or twig, which we might otherwise destroy without even noticing, into a treasure just by looking closer at it. With the hustle and bustle of spring in Boston, I cannot remember when I last stopped and looked at something simply to study it.  As I took the time to select objects for this program, I wondered which of them kids would be drawn to. I chose a brightly colored quail, whose feathers were filled with patterns and shapes. I chose crystals with many facets and ornate metal-work from Syria, thinking that kids would be excited by the artifacts’ intricacies. With the stage laid, objects picked, and camera ready I was still surprised by the depth and thoughtfulness of the first photographer. Continue reading

Artifacts Telling Stories

Bark Painting - OI 86-10

Artifacts carry an array of stories from who used it, who made it, what was it used for, and even how it came to the museum. Boston Children’s Museum’s collection holds 50,000 artifacts with countless compelling stories about people, places, and things from all over the world. Sometimes, a story can be told from the donation of an artifact, otherwise known as “provenance”.

Recently, I digitized all of the Australian artifacts in the collection. Many artifacts come from a specific donation from the Melbourne Children’s Museum presented by the Indibundji Aboriginal Dance Group in 1986. The twenty-two artifacts from this donation include a boomerang, a coolamon (an item used as a cradle or bowl), a tjara (a shield), and jewelry. Aboriginal peoples from all over Australia made these artifacts during the 1980’s. The donation tells unique stories about the artifacts, Boston Children’s Museum, and Aboriginal cultures.

Continue reading

What’s Hiding in Collections? Ancient Egyptian Artifacts!

Contratto_blog imageIt’s been quite an exciting beginning to my internship at the Museum. The first month has gone by in the blink of an eye! I never guessed how extensive and diverse Boston Children’s Museum’s collections were. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the Museum’s ancient artifacts from Egypt, Israel, Greece, Iran and Italy, just to name a few. Ceramics, jewelry, stone carvings, lamps, wooden figures, and even mummy linen are some of the artifacts that are in the collection.

Recently, I just finished cataloging 213 Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Each artifact is unique and beautiful, but some of their stories are lost to time. The majority of the artifacts were gifted to the Museum between the 1920s and 1950s by Bostonians who traveled to Egypt. Other artifacts came from archaeological excavations that occurred in Egyptian cities such as Deir el-Bahari and Faiyum.

I’ve picked out a few of my favorite Ancient Egyptian artifacts to share with you. Continue reading

Down the Rabbit Hole

Lord House original

Archival photo of Lord House when it first arrived at The Children’s Museum in Jamaica Plain

For the past few weeks, I have immersed myself in the Museum’s dollhouse collection. Let me just say, it is extensive! Not only do we have a number of wonderful large and small dollhouses, but many of these original gifts came with furnishings and doll residents too. Over the years, some of these original sets have been scattered, with pieces borrowed from one house to decorate another, used for other exhibits or sadly lost to time in the move from Jamaica Plain to Fort Point. My task has become to reunite houses with their proper furnishings…thus, down the rabbit hole I go.

As I delve into the sorting and organizing, it has been a wonderful opportunity to also explore the stories of these houses. Fortunately, one of our former Curators of Collections, Ruth Green, was an avid record keeper and maintained correspondence with donors and kept notes on exhibit use for many houses. Having these records and photographs has helped with identifying specific furnishings and accessories, which is no small task when the object in question may be a wall clock smaller than a thimble…and may be in storage with other similarly tiny wall clocks. Continue reading