The Museum of Toys and Its Double



“Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness.”

– Heinrich Von Kleist

In Mexico City, there is a museum of toys.

The museums we have built despise us like the monster despised his Frankenstein. Like monster and maker, our museums end in Antarctic ice. Our museums steal objects from wild history and arrange them in the firing-squad of recorded time, by the laws of political economy, in the cruelty of kind. Our museums are casinos by other means. What do you see there? Schoolchildren flanked by police in thin parades, staring down into bright cases at chill stones in aspic. Vesuvius built the first museum.

Our museums have marble floors. Marble is weak and expensive, like gold, cracks quick under pressure, has no shock, and pains the small of your back. Our museums ‘preserve’ history, so they say, but this guilty hoax evaporates once the names of the donors and worthies – each oil firm, rentier arsonist, philanthropic thief – appear in stele in the entrance hall. The ideology of our museums are soft power in plain marble: you see what we see, how we see it, and when we see it, in the fierce and tired arrangement of stolen objects. The more we wipe out, the more museums we build to the everlasting honor of dreadful names. If it weren’t for the rebellious and extraordinary Museum of Toys in Mexico City, the future of museums would be intolerable.

The Museo del Juguete Antiguo México (MUJAM) was founded in 1955 by Roberto Shimizu, an architect by trade. It is said that Mr. Shimizu has millions of toys, only a fraction of which are on display at any given time. Most of the toys were manufactured from the 1920s to the 1970s and are predominantly Mexican-made, although new exhibits featuring Pokémon and Harry Potter have appeared. Mr. Shimizu is no hostage to nostalgia. There is always room for the immigrant and the latecomer.


The Museum is housed in a former art deco department store, still lovely despite signs of age, with a large courtyard in the center (which houses an immense black head from an old exotica nightclub; the piano player used to play inside its mouth) and a labyrinth of rooms on each tier. Several of the museum’s rooms are used for the serious business of play and plotting: diagrams and cartoons of actions-to-be hang on the walls in inscrutable mirth. Here, Mr. Shimizu and his staff tell the children about the toys and the children tell back. The museum is an ongoing concern.


Some displays are works in progress, at least until you realize that the whole place is one single work of quiet perpetual motion. The truth of the matter is that the toys are arranging themselves in order to find new ways to beguile the onlooker. Each exhibit permits some imposter or heretic who breaks the pattern of the past; company is far more important than kind. The Toy Museum resolves each contradictory element into another contradiction, a dialectic of both reverence and irony where each beginning and end is smudged by overspill. A huge shark prepares to eat a baby carriage: this is somehow related to a large aluminum rocket module hand-painted in CCCP, spinning tops surrounded by a fleet of tiny tin trucks, or a line of robots who signal that the future is not what it used to be. The Toy Museum is not interested in the mysticism of First Causes, but in the ripples of endless effects. Reflections of Cantinflas stare at you with identical expressions. The exciting, eerie, and amusing thing is that it is the toys which seem to have demanded this revolutionary project.


In contrast, our state museums seek to dwarf a public they loathe under lofty ceilings and portcullis, under lighting which makes us feel as if we were in one vast interrogation room. No one ever gets lost in these moribund places. The clear way is well-mapped and the whole purpose of each grandiose chamber is to exhaust and beat down any doubt over who has the right to the means of production. Alarms shriek at any misstep, respectful distance is always maintained. You are slowly suffocated by the awe forever due to ‘history’. The museum is the phosphorescent, queasy conscience of the rich.


In the mass production line, identical copies are a terrifying sight as they march ever on over steel wheels. In the factory, the conveyer belt chewed arms and fingers and the shops’ sewing machines ruined eyes and ears. Standing again in identical rows, naked or clothed, these figures appear as witnesses in a sentient court. They jar the onlooker loose from the wreckage of play and the past by turning the very objects of production against the producers – or, better still, the toys regain an essential presence which is implicit in all hands that made and played with them. After the time of games and owners, the dolls have come back to rest in a calm mockery of their original sequence. But now they too have a past, that strange human relationship between objects which is part of everyone’s autobiography. This is possible only in Mexico’s Toy Museum.


The old toys, the distressed ones, ragged and torn, frayed and missing a limb… None of them are turned away. In the tradition of the great British animator, Oliver Postgate, the destitute and played-down make an eternal return as they sit, like whole and perfect ones, under lamps which lend a shout to their former brilliance. Many resemble those stark 1950’s window displays, many-armed Kali’s hands recalling Cocteau’s corridor of limbs holding candelabras (Beauty and the Beast). Adults never break toys because they do not use them, having only price or sentimentality in mind. Children may smash their companions but are far more loyal than adults. Children do not discard what they have cracked, ruined, and destroyed. Between the child and his old mate is a third material element, the aura, a property which increases with wounds. And so the Toy Museum performs inexplicable surgeries: old bears’ heads are given new plastic soldiers’ bodies, odd ends are fixed to foreign forms. These combinations do not so much resurrect as continue the game.


One of the museum’s masterpieces is the great circus diorama, a work along the lines of Van Eyck or Henri Fabre. Endless rows of plastic onlookers are arranged around the insect big top: acrobats, tiny painted marquis, animals invisible to the onlooker. It all looks like a jumble until you crouch down to knee-level, the sightline of the young child. Now on the right level, you are lost in row upon row, a maddening and joyful experience which perfectly recalls the seriousness and meticulousness of childhood concentration. The idea of the ‘true’ aerial view of the whole is shown to be a facile illusion which sees only a random mass occasionally disturbed, the first and final mistake of any invader. There we see a parallel to Persian and Indian painting, which demands that you rise to each element in the image rather than follow the vanishing points of perspective painting. As in all true works of Modernism, this tiny circus also contains the archaic.

The great El Santo is here, of course; the Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras and others less celebrated or forgotten; yellowing ads for the wrestling matches, reels and lobby cards of films in which Santo fights vampire women and El Hombre Lobo, the iconic masks used in the ring itself or the cheap plastic copies sold to adoring kids… a Popul Vuh of the true national gods. A sacrificial marriage of wrestlers in wedding dresses, with Victorian oval portraits and a crucifix hanging above; the seal of the Fraternity of El Santo, Wrestlers and Boxers. Wood, aluminum, the alchemic holy relics of the fighter against injustice and corruption…

Consider also the knock-off product, usually laughed off as a ‘third world’ cash-in, wonky, pathetically reminiscent of some bloated mainland idol. The soldier-doll displays in the Toy Museum emphasize the lowly Chuck Norris-type, giving a place to the plastic doubles of a man who once fought the immortal Bruce Lee and has now sunk to infomercials shown at 3 AM. Even he has other lives, in other countries. He is allowed the company of Santo because a child once placed them alongside each other. He was himself but others.


A noble marionette, in all his stern austerity, puts up with the plastic around him as he puts up with old monster Time itself. He has let gravity win for the moment. The wire and string fixed limbs hang limp. He is a veteran of a million plots, plays, laughs, loves and deaths but do not believe his career is over. There is no rest for the puppet. He is a restless creature anyway. A human needs a mask to play all things because the singular face betrays artifice. The puppet is the only actor who has the right to always believe that he is utterly different in each role: he may always looks the same but he always appears different. He was born the moment the first child picked up a stone or a leaf in those immemorial caves decorated with the outlines of red hands. The first toy was created under the first painting and both of them were the issue of women.


You have always missed something. The museum’s meticulous inventory hides an absorbing lack of control. There are many refugees from the fairgrounds and amusement parks here. One of the employees shows up, grinning, and turns on a light which sets in motion three large mechanical bears (throughout, things spring to life; the workers of the museum are an active force who come from nowhere to shed light on a particular display). The secret wish of the automaton is to have a life of its own, in spite of its inner workings and its prescribed track. It’s an old human dream.


Here, the Angel of History bids farewell as you enter the museum store and leave the maze of playthings. Beyond him, toys await new owners or just wait, as the storm materializes from out of heaven.

Back in the Museum, you might lose your ancient follower in repetition and the maze, as Scheherazade tried to do with her stories. In the company of toys, he can have no power, for children in their wisdom think of neither the hereafter nor of oblivion. Our toys will long outlive us in their soulless bodies, they recognize only a suspension of decay in the silence of straw or metal forms. Our mystical ideas of the Soul have only make us cruel, incurious, and petrified. We could never make do with mere presence, like the modest toys, so we barter our histories away for a few ghostly coins. In Mexico’s Museum of Toys, this drab and terrible bargain has yet to be made.

Short personal note:

The hospitality of the Museum is as boundless as its contents. Expect discussions on the making of the dioramas, the origin of the toys, Walter Benjamin, the history of the building and the family, the neighborhood, the city… Like every visitor, we are indebted to Mr. Shizumi, esteemed founder of MUJAM, to his devoted son, and their very friendly and knowledgeable staff/collaborators for an utterly unforgettable experience.

Photos by Sally Timms and myself.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.