Make every weekend epic with our free Weekender newsletter. Sign up today!

At the Norton Museum of Art, toys that are more than simple playthings

This summer, sleek Matchbox racecars and fashion-forward Barbie dolls are cruising and strutting into Norton Museum of Art, site of the new exhibition "Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Around Little Toys."

The show, which opens Thursday, is as much a chronicle of the history and cultural influence of the much-smaller-than-life toys as an argument for how relevant Barbie and Hot Wheels remain in the digital age of iPhones and Xbox Ones.

"Barbies and cars are just as valuable today as they were in the 1950s for one reason: They helped, and still help, kids imagine themselves as grownups," says Matthew Bird, the Norton's guest curator. "They're made for personal empowerment, and for making the big world seem smaller."

The brainchild of Norton Museum director and CEO Hope Alswang, the family-friendly "Wheels and Heels" was created to capitalize on the uptick in admissions the museum saw with last summer's "Block by Block" exhibit of Lego sculptures, Bird says. Alswang commissioned Bird, an associate professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, to buy hundreds of Barbies and miniature cars on eBay spanning the 1950s through 2009, the year Barbie marked its 50th anniversary.

Bird, not a fan of Barbies or miniature cars when this conquest for toys began, has since become "totally fascinated" with collecting the playthings. Since October, he's been assembling the trove of Barbies (about 800 dolls and 200 accessories, including dresses, Ken dolls, mansions, horses, dogs) and racecars (hundreds of Matchbox cars and the more flamboyant Hot Wheels, accompanied by vertical-loop racetrack sets).

"This is not a collector's-quality show. These are previously owned toys," Bird says, pointing to a 1971 Sunset Malibu Barbie whose feet contains teeth marks. "We didn't want to borrow from other private collections because we hope to tour this exhibition. But this is still the most pristine-looking collection I've ever seen."

Yellow and pink racing-stripe patterns adorn the walls of the Norton's main gallery, where various Barbie and Matchbox collections will be grouped chronologically, diorama-style, on individual stands. The dolls will be accompanied by print advertisements and wall-projected TV commercials. One vintage issue of Life magazine features Hollywood star Grace Kelly, whose dress on the cover inspired the inaugural run of Barbies in 1959.

"People ask these days how, in the world of digital toys, does this stuff impact kids with iPhones, and I think that's a stupid question," Bird says. "When you update a smartphone, you lose your experience with Candy Crush, but the doll you socked away in the attic is still there. Mattel is doing more business now than ever, because they've adapted to the times. So I can never imagine a future without toys."

Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Around Little Toys

When: June 19, through Oct. 26

Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach

Cost: $5-$12 for general admission; free during opening reception. Free for Florida residents every Thursday through Sept. 4.

Contact: 561-832-5196 or

Copyright © 2018, South Florida