10 December 2010


We arrived in Tartu, Estonia after a two hour drive through snowy forests and across another barely marked border. It felt high time to visit another museum, so we checked in, parked and went to find the Tartu Mänguasjamuuseumis (Toy Museum). We found it in a frosted cookie of a house next door to a Puppet Theater. Aside from three little kids who ran around in the lobby, we were the only visitors there and got to walk around at our own slow, warmth-seeking pace.
What little information there was scattered about was translated into English, but this was definitely not a fact-heavy museum. It was more like an enormous collection, set up to look recently played with. One room lead into another and then another, each jam packed. It's nice, when you're traveling alongside someone else, to visit places like this that allow you to focus on the items that strike your individual fancy and spot things your companion may not have seen. As we walked through, there were a lot of Hey-Look-At-Thises and Come-Heres.
I loved the fact that there were old photographs of Estonian children with their toys hung throughout the museum. This one was in the "Outdoor Toys" room, showcasing a young Estonian and his wooden bicycle. For me, the photos gave the pieces and their corresponding time periods a bit of context. I can conjure up images of the early 1800s in America or England, but I have no idea what they looked like up here in Estonia. Plus, I really like laughing at the facial expressions children make when having their picture taken. This kid was obviously pretty tough.
The museum began with the "Toys of City Children," which, of course, were all porcelain dolls and tea sets. These were the "Country Children Toys." Aside from these sort of crude wooden figurines there were also faceless cloth dolls, a few of which had drawn on eyes and mouths that looked like the work of a marker wielding child. Being as there weren't markers centuries ago, I like to think that the dolls had been passed down and thoroughly played with for generations before being donated to the museum.
The only thing I like more than toys that look like they've really been used are toys I get to use. We didn't venture into the playroom on the second floor, but the Wooden Toys section gave us some puzzles and playthings to putz around with. With a push and a pull, one rooster would feed and then the other. Back and forth and back and forth. It made an excellent sound and was far easier to gain satisfaction from than the Gypsy Knot puzzles that sat alongside it. I think Merlin was a little disappointed he couldn't try out one of the teeny tiny wooden "Matchstick Ignited Guns." Another 'interactive' feature of the museum was a computer set up in the Wind Up Toy room. You could click on a picture of any exhibited toy and watch a short video of it moving all about. There were ducks climbing ladders, fishermen casting out their lines and some little people who just liked running around in circles.
This is a dollhouse kitchen accessory I've never seen before. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is a meat grinder. I bet there's a toy house somewhere out there in America with a teeny tiny Foreman Grill. The dollhouse room was my favorite. There was one that had been made by a man as he hid from the Soviets in a potato crate. He recreated his entire house from memory and then gave the completed set to his daughter when he came out of hiding. The house had been deconstructed and each floor was placed inside a drawer, which allowed you to get a good bird's eye view of the work one level at a time. Peaking through chests of drawers that didn't belong to me and finding little treasures made me feel absolutely childlike and, I thought, was an excellent way to convey the secrecy of his craftsmanship.
In almost every room, the mänguasjamuuseum mentioned the gender differences in toys, explaining that throughout time playthings have been used to prepare little boys and girls for their future roles in life. This was best illustrated in the older toy collections, where mock hunting and building tools were juxtaposed with miniature weaving looms and, of course, dolls. However, at a certain point in time, it seems weird that boys would still need to learn how to be knights or pirates, or that something like driving would be considered a male-specific life skill.
We've only been in Estonia for three days, but being as we've been in the Baltic region for a little over a month now, I can say that this is the most Baltic toy ever. Mittens knit in traditional patterns exactly like this one are in every souvenir shop, on every hand and in every outdoor market on a little table in front of the old woman who knit them. The only thing more omnipresent than this style of knitting is pork. So, there you have it. The Baltics as a toy. Seriously, how cute are those piglets?

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