Toys in the Cityscape

22 December 2021

Toys accompany us year round, but during the festive season they emanate a special kind of magic. The city is festooned with ornaments, and streets, squares, shop fronts and interiors are filled with dazzling lights and Christmas decorations.

When we think of Christmas, we think of decorations and everything else that we put on the tree. And toys make excellent gifts: dolls, cars, games…” says Marek Sosenko, creator of Poland’s largest collection of historic toys numbering almost 50,000 items and held in Kraków. Although anything can be a plaything, toys refer to objects made specifically for the purpose. At the turn of the 20th century, a toy factory stood at the intersection of today’s Piłsudskiego and Straszewskiego streets, and Kraków had a chain of traditional toy shops until just a few decades ago. Beautifully arranged shop windows were widely admired. “Oh, what joy it was when your mum took you shopping and you could stand in front of the shop gazing at all the toys within,” recalls Marek Sosenko.

Although these shops are long gone, the traditions are recalled by a cycle of exhibitions organised by the Toy Museum in Kraków. The museum is yet to acquire its own site, so exhibits are displayed at other institutions, always set up to resemble a shop window. The selection of toys from the vast Sosenko collection is overseen by external curators: volunteers who participate in curatorship workshops held over several weeks.

One of the shelves at the Podgórze Museum is filled with felt animals designed by Zofia Stryjeńska as part of Kraków Workshops – a creative association active in the city between 1913 and 1926. The workshops were famous for their dazzling toys including paper Christmas tree decorations. Anna Myczkowska-Szczerska reaches for original templates, photos and a few preserved paper toys to present their reconstructions at the exhibition Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 at the William Morris Gallery in London (until 30 January 2022). She carried out the painstaking work as part of a research project at the Faculty of Industrial Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. The toys include fish, heads of oxen, horses, devils and St Nicholas, insects, crayfish and fruit. Over a hundred large-scale decorations adorn the Christmas tree set up in the centre of the exhibition room, and a further hundred original-sized toys can be found in the museum shop.

“Two figurines based on an egg shell, a piglet and a fish, also include templates I prepared by looking at original photographs,” the artist explains. “When you buy the toy in its original box [also a part of the project – ed.], it’s ready to put on your tree – and you’ll find the full template and instructions for making your own toys. Even a child can make their own figurines under adult says Piszczkiewicz. “Suddenly it turns out that even if an installation is only in place for a short while, it starts to inspire and stir emotions. It shatters the indifference we usually have for public spaces, suggests new functions and introduces its own narrative. And when the installation is gone, it leaves behind a hole. It’s a key point in our thinking about changing our landscape and realizing that we can be active in this process.” Perhaps the toys will transform the usually unfriendly space of Wolnica Square!

Some of the toys will remain in the city space permanently, including Stryjeńska’s great dragon by the Kraków Airport terminal, models at the Konika Zwierzynieckiego Square by Dębnicki Bridge, wooden plants and animals filling the Dzikie Planty playground and the huge dragon Delicjusz at Decius Park.

The Ethnographic Museum focuses on folklore crafts which developed until the second half of the 19th century in Southern Poland, mainly as a sideline of pottery workshops and off-season hobbies of farmers and stonemasons. Toys bought at indulgences such as Emaus in Zwierzyniec, Rękawka in Podgórze and Na Skałce in Kazimierz are bound to still be found in many Cracovian homes, and some of the oldest, dating back to the turn of the 20th century, form the core of the permanent exhibition at the Ethnographic Museum.

Once the Toy Museum obtains its own site in Kraków – hopefully in the Wesoła district – a full range of historic toys will gain a permanent place in the city space. However, the mock-up shop windows will be just one element: first and foremost, the museum will be a space for creative play where children make, watch and play with toys. In the meantime, a mobile version of the exhibition – a portable cabinet with a selection of original exhibits and associated creative activities – travels to museums, cultural centres, libraries, schools (timetable on muzeumzabawekrakow.pl), and to the exhibition Toy Clinic to be launched just before Christmas at the former hospital in the Wesoła district (15a Kopernika Street). (Katarzyna Jagodzińska)

Katarzyna Jagodzińska – Assistant Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University and member of the editorial board of the “Architecture & Business” monthly. Co-creator of the Toy Museum in Kraków. Art historian and journalist, she specialises in museum studies and cultural heritage.

The text was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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