Museum’s toys exhibit appeals to young, old

Advocate staff photos by ARTHUR D. LAUCKA Lionel train set is on display at the LSU Museum of Art as part of its antique toys exhibit,  Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Advocate staff photos by ARTHUR D. LAUCKA Lionel train set is on display at the LSU Museum of Art as part of its antique toys exhibit, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

All aboard!

The train is about to leave the station, and it runs on time.

So, it’s wise to be sitting front and center when the train rolls at the LSU Museum of Art. And plenty of children have done just that.

But even more noticeable have been the children at heart.

“The train was the biggest attraction when we first opened the exhibit,” Natalie Mault said. “When they heard the train start running, they couldn’t wait to get to the gallery. And the front row was filled with grown men who were just sitting there and watching the train go round and round. They couldn’t get enough of it.”

Mault laughed. She remembered the train’s operator for the day saying something about the number of wives who were probably happy about the train exhibit that day.

“They could spend as much time as they wanted in the other galleries, while their husbands were occupied,” Mault said.

Mault is the museum’s curator. She arranged for the loan of the model train sets that have become the main attraction for the museum’s annual holiday exhibit of antique toys, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

She also chose the pieces from among the museum’s 700-piece collection of antique toys to create this show, which harkens back to its earliest days when the LSU Museum of Art was housed in the Memorial Tower on campus.

Families often included the show in their holiday traditions, part of which was watching a toy train travel its track around a big Christmas tree. Other toys were placed beneath and around the tree, which created a sense of Christmas morning after Santa’s visit.

Gone is the tree, but the kids from yesteryear are here. They’re a little older, sure, but the adult veneer around the heart melts away, leaving only a child’s wonder.

The train on the inner track travels a figure eight course, while a bigger train on the outer track runs in a circle, passing miniature ice skaters before disappearing into a plastic foam tunnel

One is a 1930s Lionel train set with smoke streaming from the stack and lighted passenger cars.

Rodneyna Hart pushed the green button on the control panel, signaling the whistle.

Hart is the museum’s preparator, the person who prepares and maintains exhibits. But today, she was the conductor who operated controls along the edge of the train exhibit.

She moved the lever forward, and the inner track train began its journey.

She moved it again, and the train on the outer track rolled in the opposite direction.

Where were they going? Well, that answer is limited only by the imagination, and no imagination is cordoned by boundaries when entering this gallery.

Back to the tunnel. It may be constructed from plastic foam, but it looks like a mountain. Hart helped build it, along with the rest of the landscape through which the trains travel.

“It was fun,” she said. “And it’s fun when people come in and look at the train.”

The exhibit label credits an anonymous lender for providing the train sets, but Mault points out that a group of train enthusiasts in Jackson are responsible.

And though the trains clearly are the most popular attraction, there are other modes of transportation to see in this show presented by Brian Harris Audi, Union Pacific, E. John Bullard and Charles E. Schwing.

The show starts in the museum’s front display window, featuring Hart’s interpretation of the Interstate 10 bridge. Its official name is the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, but most people know simply as the “New Bridge.”

And placed on small shelves built above and below Hart’s painting of the New Bridge are models of a 1951 Simca 8 sports car, a 1939 Alvis Sports Tourer, a 1948 Jaguar Sports sports car, a 1952 Frazier-Nash sports car and a 1938 Lagonda sports coupe.

This is another place where imaginations can take hold, but adults don’t necessarily have to retreat to their childhoods to imagine themselves sitting in the drivers’ seats of these oh-so cool, classic cars. Then again, who knows?

Some passersby may remember receiving one of these models from Santa. Santa may even have brought them one of the model airplanes on one of the higher shelves or the wooden train set traveling the track below.

Or maybe even the boat that has been set where the Mississippi River naturally would flow. Yes, there’s a boat in this exhibit of trains, planes and automobiles, but it fits.

And if it isn’t obvious by now, it’s clear that this show probably appeals more to boyhood memories than those of girls. Then again, if modern-day boys can experiment with Easy Bake Ovens, why couldn’t girls of yesteryear put their imaginations to work while watching the Lionel train run along its track?

Why wouldn’t little girls be fascinated by it now?

And with surrounding walls filled by fine art pieces complementing the toys, visitors can’t help being inspired.

“We started pairing our toy exhibit with fine art in last year’s exhibit,” Mault said.

The exhibit’s 2011 title was Under the Big Top, featuring toys and artwork that represented circus themes. This year’s show is a little smaller, but it’s filled with as many possibilities.

Possibilities of traveling somewhere far away.

On a Lionel train.