A different kind of toy story

Christine Armengaud’s impressive collection of clay figurines at the Eretz Israel Museum is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining

clay toys311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
clay toys311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Most of the figures in Christine Armengaud’s collection wouldn’t strike you as toys. Crafted from clay, crudely painted, and breakable, the objects are a far cry from the streamlined pop-culture goods manufactured and sold in toy stores today.
So what is a toy? Are the toys in this exhibit for children or for the adults who will come to wonder at Armengaud’s collection of curiosities? And what are toys doing in a history and culture museum? These question lie at the heart of Armengaud’s exhibit, currently running at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Armengaud’s answers to these questions, carefully arranged in a four-section configuration, may challenge our concept of what constitutes a toy.
“Most people think a toy is something you buy. But up until the 19th Century, few people were buying toys,” says Armengaud, who has curated the exhibit.
Entitled “Toys of the Earth” the exhibit is her third at the Eretz Israel Museum.
According to Armengaud, up until the Industrial Era toys were made at home, frequently for religious purposes, for use in ceremonies or to mark life cycle events. Unlike today’s toys, the items in her collection weren’t crafted for children.
Artisans once crafted figurines for ritual occasions or to serve symbolic purposes. At the end of the ceremony, the objects would be cast off to the children. Use as a plaything often was the last part of the “life cycle” of the toy. These items were meant to be broken by the children who played with them.
Armengaud’s collection includes clay figurines from around the world, chosen selectively and carefully arranged. The exhibit is divided into four sections. The first is arranged to communicate the timelessness of the art, the second to mark the distinctiveness of each figurine. The third takes a close look at the whimsical form of noisemaking toys—rattles, whistles and ocarinas from around the world. And the fourth is devoted to Israeli artists who have crafted pieces that may or may not be toys. In contradistinction to Armengaud’s other pieces, the figures in this collection have been crafted as art, not as toys.
Varying in size, shape, color and origin, the figurines share one important common trait: they are all made of clay. For Armengaud, there is an important connection between the medium of clay and the toy created with it.
“I think you understand what you say, think and do with your hands. When you feel, your hands help your imagination and your soul. Clay takes the shape of fingers and their energy, so I think the potters who make figurines pray with their hands. They are not just making something. They are praying.”
There is indeed something almost magical about the idea of crafting human and animal forms from the earth, a process that recalls the most ancient and basic story that human cultures everywhere tell themselves about their origins. In a sense, Armengaud’s exhibit will remind those who come to see it of the mythical creation tale. By displaying these toy figurines, Armengaud links the creation of man from clay with man’s creativity with clay.
Families, children and their parents, will enjoy this exhibit, if for different reasons. Children will be drawn to the brightly colored, lively figures. Adults will be engaged by the concept developed in and through Armengaud’s collection. Both will wonder at the terrific imagination brought together from cultures all over the world, and perhaps all will leave with a new respect for and understanding of what it means to play with toys.
As for Armengaud, she hopes that visitors will continue to engage with the questions raised by the exhibit, even after they leave.
“The best would be to have those who come see the exhibit buy some clay after they leave and to have them try to make clay pieces themselves. That would be the dream.
“Even if they don’t make the figures themselves, they will see clay with different eyes, broadening their definition of what a figurine is, broadening their definition of what beauty is, of what we see in a museum. A museum exhibit is not something from a thousand years ago. It is what we are making today.”