Arts & Events

A surreal look at childhood nostalgia with ‘Toytopia’

By Matthew Gulick

Currently on display at the Washington State History Museum is a giant dollhouse with smaller dollhouses inside. The playset recursion is part of the “Toytopia” exhibit on view through June 10.

Showcasing toys from the past hundred years, “Toytopia” takes visitors on a tour through the evolution of play, dealing in nostalgia and wonder along the way. This interactive display is a sure trip down memory lane as it covers a broad range of capitalization on children’s play. From an old wooden rocking horse that seems to have a mane of real horse hair to arcade games like the original Space Invaders, there is bound to be something from every American visitor’s youth.

“Our goal was to capture the essence of childhood wonder, that dream of being in a world of toys,” Troy Carlson, creator of the exhibition, said.

Hands-on aspects like Lego and Jenga provided countless minutes of entertainment, while others like the Etch A Sketch proved to be far more frustrating. With their Candy Crushes, memes and Minecrafts, kids these days will never know the struggle of such physical play as this. I half-expected to be confronted with an elderly individual in a rocking chair lamenting, “When we were kids, we’d be kicked out of the house in the morning and weren’t allowed to come home till dinner time,” but no, “Toytopia” centers on purchasable products as the name suggests.

One of the main draws is the dominating life-size dollhouse just after the first corner. While impressive, with a full backyard and inaccessible second floor, the house, much like the rest of the exhibit, was in use by many school-age children. This meant I was relegated to admiring the exquisite architecture from afar, which made sense considering it was an exhibit marketed toward families with kids.

“The dollhouse isn’t wired for electricity,” Dolores Sampson, mother of Julia Sampson ’18, said. Nowhere in the museum or on the website were such claims made.

“You’re sure to find your favorite toys in TOYTOPIA,” the website reads.

“The museum’s expansive fifth floor galleries have become a magical land of big toys where you can play all day with the world’s largest Etch A Sketch, a life-size doll house, a human-scale Monopoly car, vintage arcade games (no quarters required!) and much more,” it goes on to say.

This hype text is slightly misleading.

“The giant Etch A Sketch doesn’t actually work,” Sampson said.

In addition, museumgoers are forbidden from really playing with the monopoly car, though it is human-sized.

Besides the giant dollhouse and Etch A Sketch, other oversized toys include an electric keyboard in the floor. After removing their shoes, visitors play it with their feet on one of six settings, such as “pipe organ” or “harpsichord.”

“Where’s the eucharist?” Tony Camme ’18 said after repeatedly referring to the installation as “church,” a joke he would repeat every time some new child stepped up to play, causing the organ to reverberate throughout the entirety of Toytopia.

Other parts of the website blurb are more accurate, though. One ticket does entitle a visitor to play all day. After paying once people can come and go as they please, and a single purchase grants access to all museum exhibits.. With its location in the heart of downtown Tacoma, Washington State History Museum’s “Toytopia” provides the perfect way to entertain visiting parents or friends and show them around like you know Tacoma better than you do.

Despite the occasional let-downs, Toytopia is a unique exhibit that would make for an oddly fun first date or rainy afternoon activity. Just make sure to go during school hours so you can get at that dollhouse.

Discounted tickets for college students are $11 while those for regular old adults go for $14. More information at

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