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With A New Name, The Toy & Miniature Museum Looks Ahead

Thirty years ago, the Toy & Miniature Museum of Kansas City opened its doors, with a display of dollhouses, toys, and miniatures mostly collected by two Kansas City women.

The museum is making plans for the future with a new name and a new look.

A collaborative work in miniature

The Toy & Miniature Museum is housed in a 1911 mansion atop a hill, at the end of a long driveway, across from the UMKC School of Law.

On this day, a Tuesday, the museum is closed. Inside, it's quiet as educator Laura Taylor walks along a hallway to a glass case nestled in a blue background. This is the most recent addition to the collection, commissioned by one of the founders, Barbara Marshall.

"When she finds an artist that she believes in, she asks them what they’d like to make," says Taylor. "So many of the works in our collection are pieces that are the artist’s dream works.

"In this case, the artist actually asked Mrs. Marshall, 'Well, what would you like?' And she said, 'You know, I’d really like a jewelry store from a great age of jewelry design.'"

Credit courtesy of The Toy & Miniature Museum
courtesy of The Toy & Miniature Museum
The Art Deco jewelry store commissioned by museum co-founder Barbara Marshall.

The Art Deco jewelry store (designed by Mulvaney & Rogers)  – at one-twelfth scale – is lined with wood paneling, and marble pillars.

In glass cases, tiny necklaces, brooches, and earrings (designed by Canadian artist Lori Ann Potts) with precious and semi-precious stones sparkle on black velvet. There’s a salesman and a couple (designed by Spanish artist Maria Jose Santos); the woman wears an elegant green suit and fur; the man in a grey striped double-breasted suit.

There’s also a wedding cake-style beaded chandelier (designed by British artist Robert Ward). "And the chandelier is amazing," says Taylor. "There are 15,800 beads in the chandelier."

Childhood friends open a museum

The two museum founders, the late Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Hall Marshall, were childhood friends – and avid collectors. Marshall started collecting miniatures in the 1950's; Francis started her toy collection with dollhouses in the early 1970's.

"They used to show their collection to Mary Harris Francis' mother and she told them that if they got one more thing, they were going to have to open a museum," says executive director Jamie Berry. "And that resonated with them.

"So, in 1982, they decided to pool their collections and open The Miniature Museum, which was the original name of the Toy and Miniature Museum."

Berry says the two women continued to collect and outgrew the space quickly; in 1989, an expansion tripled the size of the museum. Another renovation in 2002 made room for the loan of an extensive marble collection, considered one of the largest in the world.

A nostalgic trip, the changing nature of play

The museum now spans 33,000 square feet, with a collection of 300,000 pieces; the earliest is a doll dating back to the mid-1700's. There are 38 rooms full of tea sets, classic games, mechanical toys, teddy bears, dollhouses, curiosity miniatures, and more.

"People are interested in having a little bit of a nostalgic trip when they come here and seeing things they played with," says Berry.

The museum’s Laura Taylor says most of the toy collection dates to the 19th century, when attitudes about childhood began to change. She says the industrial revolution made toys easier – and cheaper – to obtain.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Executive director Jamie Berry and museum educator Laura Taylor next to the Coleman dollhouse, the largest object in the collection.

Standing next to the largest object in the collection - the 9-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide Coleman Dollhouse - Taylor says the nature of play has also changed over time.

"I think the way we perceive the dollhouse today has more to do with family relationships," says Taylor. "One hundred years ago, 150 years ago, that certainly was the case, but there was the sense that you were learning skills that you would need as an adult."

From "well-kept secret" to more well-known

Staying in touch with what adults and children want out of the museum today is something that executive director Jamie Berry says the staff and board have focused on, with extensive research, since she was hired in 2005.

"One of the things that we’ve continued to hear about the museum is that we’re a well-kept secret, and frankly, we’re tired of that. We would like to be better known."

Berry says the 30th anniversary of the museum provides an opportunity to make a leap – from a regional museum to one more in the national spotlight. To that end, they’re unveiling a new name: The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.

"We’ll be rolling out some new exhibit design and some new interpretation that will hopefully evoke some of the feelings and emotions that kids experience today when playing with things, but still using, in many respects, our existing collection of antique toys," Berry says.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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