Toy Story

   If you’ve dreamed of reliving the pure euphoria of being a kid in a toy store, then the Norton Museum of Art has the show for you.

   On June 19, the Norton opened its grand summer exhibition “Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Around Little Toys.” Organized by guest curator Matthew Bird, the show chronicles the evolution of Mattel icons Barbie, Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels through roughly 1,000 toys, as well as patent drawings, advertisements, books and a special interactive play zone.

Guest curator Matthew Bird acquired around 1,000 toys for the exhibit.

   Don’t be fooled—this exhibit isn’t just for kids. Adults will enjoy sharing stories about their first Barbie dolls or Matchbox cars, and will come away with an understanding of why and how these toys made such an impact on American and global toy consumption.

   Unlike many shows that grace the Norton’s halls, “Wheels and Heels” was created and curated through the museum. After initial discussions last September, Bird began combing the Internet, and specifically eBay, for the individual toys that would eventually make up the show’s content. By purchasing previously loved pieces, Bird was able to “get the objects to tell another story.” Why is that Hot Wheels missing a wheel? What happened to that Barbie’s hair? Who lived in this dream house and what were her dreams? These inquiries underscore the role toys play in the lives of so many children and add another dimension to this already playful display.

Visitors can strike a pose inside a life-size Barbie box.

   The exhibit itself is set up chronologically and begins with a look at toys before the advent of Barbie or Matchbox. Visitors can check out antique Jack in the Boxes and discover what dolls looked like prior to Barbie, before posing inside a life-size Barbie box because, as Bird puts it, “everybody can be Barbie.”

   Like the many Matchbox and Hot Wheels tracks adorning the walls, the show then diverges into two paths: one focused on toy cars and one focused on Barbies. To the left, guests walk through the history of toy cars, beginning with the first Matchbox cars, manufactured by Lesney Products and released in 1953. When creating these first models, Lesney was concerned with accuracy, scale and selling them at a low cost to consumers. As guests walk through the array of toys, tracks, board games and the like, the toy car evolves from low-end, corner-store purchase to the fast, colorful and exhilarating Hot Wheels. The fun design of the exhibition, complete with yellow tracks racing along the walls and a plethora of veritable treasure chests of toy cars, propels visitors forward and imbues knowledge at every turn through thoughtful museum notes and polka dots of information scattered throughout.

   In addition, a small inner room displays a reel of advertisements that illustrate one of the key themes of the exhibit: the role of kids as consumers. As Bird notes, prior to Matchbox and Barbie toys were primarily something parents bought for kids around the holidays. In the wake of the manufacturing explosion and baby boom that occurred after World War II, there was a far greater demand for toys. By advertising straight to kids, with well designed catalogues and targeted television spots, toy manufacturers tapped into children’s piggy banks and their parent’s wallets.

The exhibit is separated into two zones, but converge on similar themes. Photo by Grayson Hoffman

  The mock movie theater also acts as a bridge to the other side of the exhibition space, which is dedicated to Barbie. The original 1959 model, as well as her closet of 22 outfits, is displayed in all her splendor, along with her friends Ken, Midge, Francie and Stacey, to name a few. Much like the cars, Barbie is grouped into different looks and advancements in style, and with every vignette, visitors learn more and more about America’s favorite doll. A number of dream homes, cars, horses, pets and accessories are also on display.

   The exhibition continues with an interactive section that—let’s be honest—is geared towards the tykes. Models in training can strut their stuff down a Barbie runway while mini-engineers can build the racetrack of their dreams. Kids can also dress Barbie up in a number of fashionable outfits or design their own ensemble.

   “Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Around Little Toys” is on display at the Norton Museum of Art through October 26. If you attend and snap any pictures to share on social media, make sure to use the hashtags #Wheelsandheels and #Nortonmuseumofart. For more information, visit

Facebook Comments