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Friday, 08 April 2016 12:10

[email protected]: Rock County Historical Society exhibit heavy on nostalgia

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Laurel Fant, curator and collection manager at the Rock County Historical Society, plays with a Slinky. The popular toy from the 1960s is part of the new exhibit Toys @ Play, which runs through the end of December, 2016. Laurel Fant, curator and collection manager at the Rock County Historical Society, plays with a Slinky. The popular toy from the 1960s is part of the new exhibit Toys @ Play, which runs through the end of December, 2016. Terry Mayer/staff

MESSENGER -- Remember when you were a kid playing with your favorite Raggedy Ann doll or G.I. Joe action figure or waiting to wake up Christmas morning to open up that new Cabbage Patch Doll or the Beanie Baby?

Well, the Rock County Historical Society is bringing those memories back to life with the Toys @ Play exhibit, on display at the Helen Jeffris Wood Museum Center, 426 N. Jackson St. in Janesville, through December, 2016.

The exhibit features toys from the late 1800s to the mid-1990s on loan from area residents.

"You get a mix of different toys that people have loaned to us that span the decades, which gives you a feeling of nostalgia for the exhibit because there are things that people used to play with, everything from pet rocks to Slinky, Rubik’s Cube, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Raggedy Ann and Annie dolls and Beanie Babies," said Nathan Fuller, education curator for the Rock County Historical Society. "Toys are something that people cherish and things that have been popular over a long period of time."

The exhibit features a soapbox car set with a derby car and racing uniform from the 1940s.

Laurel Fant, curator and collection manager, said some of the more unique items in the collection include battery-powered, wind-up robot toys.

"One of them is called ‘Sparkling Mike.’ When you wind it up, it shoots out sparks, which couldn’t of been very safe for people, but it looks like a fun toy to play with," Fant said.

Most of the toys are exhibited in themed areas. For example, there is an agricultural-themed area that includes toy tractors, chicken and egg sets and toy flowers. There is a 1960s-themed living room with an old television set showing toy commercials from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The exhibit includes a "fab" area that features toys that have been popular during the past few decades, and there is a doll area with a tea set.

"If kids want to bring a stuffed animal or a doll, they can set them up and have a tea party in the exhibit," Fuller said.

The exhibit includes interactive areas where patrons can play with some of the toys. There’s a superhero area that includes a comic book background, and children can don superhero costumes and have their pictures taken, which they can post on social media. The exhibit includes a large dry-erase wall where people can play games and work on crossword puzzles.

"The focus of the exhibit was not things in cases everywhere. With this exhibit, we’re trying to do something that’s more playful," Fuller said. "When you come to a toy exhibit, you expect to play with the toys, which is what we’re doing. The things in here will, for the most part, be interactive, having areas where people can have a lot of fun in this exhibit. It’s something different than what the historical society has done before, and I think that’s a good thing."

Fant said the historical society has set up a "space academy" section where patrons can use a Nerf gun to shoot at alienlike targets.

Besides toys, the exhibit features a collection of board and lawn games, including a mini-croquet set.

"(The mini-croquet set) would be pretty difficult to play with -- I would imagine- but it’s fun to see," Fuller said. "Everyone who lives in the Midwest probably has played croquet, but small croquet is cool because it’s the smaller version of the larger game."

Fuller said the historical society plans to host several programs related to the exhibit, including a presentation about the history of toys, and a doctor from Mercy Health System is set to host a program about toy safety in May.

The historical society also plans to host exhibit-related activities during the Tallman Arts Festival in August.

Fuller said the historical society developed the idea for the exhibit while coming across some antique toys at the Lincoln-Tallman House.

"I thought, ‘Maybe we could do an exhibit on toys. That would be fun,’" Fuller said. "We’ll throw an idea out there and brainstorm ideas that we can do. It just kind of went from there. By August, people were asking about the next exhibit, so we decided what we wanted to do, planning the designs and getting items ready for the exhibit."

Meghan Walker, marketing and outreach coordinator for the historical society, said seeing the toys in the exhibit helps bring back memories of her childhood.

"It’s really fun to come in here and see toys that I remember playing with," Walker said. "I was a child in the 1990s, so I can’t believe it was that long ago. Seeing the Beanie Babies was really cool as well as the Cabbage Patch Kids and the Strawberry Shortcake dolls. The Strawberry Shortcake dolls, while they were being put in the display, you could still smell them."

Fuller said the exhibit includes items and activities for children and adults.

"I think it’s something that families could enjoy together. There’s very few venues in Janesville and Rock County where families can do things either indoors or outdoors that is cool for the whole family, so it’s just not for little kids, it’s for older kids," Fuller said. "We want people to be in here with their kids or grandkids or nieces or nephews. I think it’s cross generational. I think some of the older people will like some of the toys."

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