For the fourth edition of Local Issues and Locales, Honours in Curatorship student, Michelle Mlati, shares her views on The Simon’s Town Warrior Toy Museum
Unapologetic Warrior Toy Museum
The toy story of the Simon’s Town Warrior Toy Museum is both ancient and present. Here, historic toys infiltrate their way into the contemporary era – at first creating temporal visual confusion.
As I oriented myself to the space, a miniature marching SS army and its leader, saluting an absent Hitler, grabbed my attention with their vivid plasticity. A flimsy label echoed Winston Churchill’s voice in his appeal to not forget the negative side of history. This encounter evoked ambivalence in me, both to the curatorial framework as well as to the content. Here, a scene was settled by the condemnation of the history, yet valued for keeping a difficult history alive in the audience’s conscience – for society not to repeat the horrors of the past.
However, the reason why this army is for sale for R8000, which is “cheap” in the collector’s market we were told, signals the problematic commodification of such plasticized terror in this museum-meets-toyshop. The very sale of this perpetuates the neoliberal forces that maintain an undesired historicity yet defy the conventions of the ‘traditional museum’.
I wondered further into this world of toy stories, and as I considered the toys abandoned within their boxed archive of unopened packaging, waiting to be traded, I thought of children who grow tired of their toys.
Eventually, after searching for some light-heartedness, I bumped into the blue-dressed Mary Poppins, of the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious era in the Sound of Music, disrupting the somewhat sexist taxonomies – men in war watched by a cabinet of mostly female baby dolls.
In another cabinet, Barbies and Kens enjoying the good life met with the Van Riebeecks. The curatorial narrative flowed rather incomprehensibly, despite what seemed at times to be a grouping based on material similarity.
I then looked up and saw a dancing geisha, draped in an exquisite Kimono – her white-painted face stood out from the white crowd of baby dolls. Then, Noddy and his car and a female muppet in a convertible delighted my eyes, transporting me back to childhood television.
Industrial Lego cities emerged, exciting my fingers, and then to my left, a passenger train slithered on a portable landscape. This further excited the senses as it circled around and around the table, causing others to follow its path, and as it crossed the bridge, one could not help but look down and notice two Nano-sized naked figurines, identified by two kids once upon a time. The joys of childhood vision!
A downsized version of the Blue Train made an appearance, evoking in others the dream to one-day journey on the real locomotive – a short-lived dream once we discovered the R20000 per night price tag.
Then, things quickly became jazz-age industrial, with tons of vehicles bringing to life Gatsby’s automobile that appeared in the 2013 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Aeroplanes ostentatiously showed off their wings and more military trucks appeared, evoking high modernism.
After a whole round of circling the floor, I landed back at square one. My initial impression remained unchanged.
I wondered why there were no black dolls. After searching the shelves, I found a few at the bottom of one and, at the very top of another, one black-faced doll.
I wondered why the shopkeeper told us the owner of the collection was at The Waterfront purchasing more toys, when there is already a whole cabinet dedicated to Barbie… and I also wondered why the popular Bratz dolls were not to be seen.
With high concern, I wonder about this toy collection and its market forces. I fear for those who have to face objects in which they cannot see themselves in a 21st century democracy, in a place called a museum. The toy museum can become a playground for some, but for others it is a platform of alienation and racism in the age of enterprise culture. Perhaps The Warrior Toy Museum should take a lesson or two in subversion classes before committing further epistemic and pedagogic crimes, as ignorance fuels social harm.
Header image – the Honours in Curatorship group, by Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti