Michael Mingoia, Director of Exhibitions at the Napa Valley Museum

Michael Mingoia is director of exhibitions at the Napa Valley Museum Yountville in California. In this edition of The Friday Five, Michael shares details of the current exhibition titled DANGEROUS GAMES: Treacherous Toys We Loved As Kids, and explains the social function of toys and play.

Tell us about the exhibit, DANGEROUS GAMES: Treacherous Toys We Loved As Kids, at the Napa Valley Museum.

As the tagline suggests, almost all the toys in the exhibit have either been modified for safety reasons since initially being released to the market, or removed from shelves completely. There are twelve sections to the exhibition. The introduction is titled, Welcome Back to a Wham-O Summer. The sections within the exhibition include: You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, Now You’re Cooking!, You’ll Put Your Back Out, Dangerous: Slippery When Wet, The Devil Made Me Do It, Back to the Backyard, Look Out for Flying Lawn Darts, Live and Let Fly, Don’t Blow It, and Meet Me in the Laboratory. It concludes with Say So Long to Summer.

We have the Easy-Bake Oven, Atomic Energy Lab, Creepy Crawlers, Clackers, Vac-U Form, Red Ryder rifles, Suzy Homemaker Super Safety Oven, Johnny Seven One Man Army, Swing Wing, lawn darts, candy cigarettes, the original Mr. Potato head with the spiky plastic pieces that were stabbed into a real potato, Slip ‘N Slide, Water Weenie, Water Wiggle, Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, a manual from a kids’ glass-blowing kit, Crazy Foam, Ouija board, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls (there was a chewing mechanism in the doll that would catch kids’ fingers and hair), Silly String, and a wonderful sign from Los Angeles that threatened a $1,000 fine for anyone using Silly String.

We have six monitors within the exhibit that play vintage commercials for some of the toys. The movie A Christmas Story also plays, because we have a BB gun that was a commemorative issue for the movie but never actually released. There’s also an audio tour of the exhibition voiced by Bill Rogers, the “Voice of Disney”.

Laura Rafaty is the executive director at Napa Valley Museum Yountville — she conceived of the exhibition. It is very family-friendly, with plenty of interactive elements for people to enjoy. It really connects generations of visitors — people just love it.

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How do these toys reflect the times in which they were created?

I think that they reflect the times of the “go go” manufacturing years when no one really thought of the ramifications of these toys for the end-user. Later, we became more aware of the consequences of manufacturing and decision making. Manufacturers modified some of these toys to be safer, while others were simply pulled outright as parents would campaign if their child was injured by a toy or game. Around the same time, media started to explode, so these stories got a lot of coverage.

As I child, I had many of these toys and I was burned by some of them.

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Why do dangerous toys continue to fascinate us long after they were removed from shelves?

I think it’s because we’ve now established so many guidelines and rules for public behaviour and discourse — rules for what is and is not acceptable.

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How does this exhibition complement the mandate of the Napa Valley Museum?

Our mandate is to enrich the cultural fabric of our community through exhibitions and events. DANGEROUS GAMES: Treacherous Toys We Loved As Kids documents cultural phenomena in this decidedly American exhibit.

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What do you hope visitors take away from their time at the exhibit?

I’d like visitors to come away with a better understanding of the universal cultural connections to objects of play and the social functions of play. They tie us together in many ways. I want people to see that we’re bound together by common activities. We all used to watch Ed Sullivan on television every Sunday night. Those days are gone, I think in part because of the digital age. So much of our time now is lived without other people. Many of us work remotely and we play games without other people. It’s just not the same as shooting a frisbee with your friends in the backyard. People miss this sort of shared cultural activity.

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DANGEROUS GAMES: Treacherous Toys We Loved As Kids runs through February 13, 2022. Learn more about the exhibit.