Toy tour guides offer visitors a unique journey through the centuries at Benaki Toy Museum. Come along!
By: Chryssoula Katsarou
Explore the Benaki Toy Museum
The Benaki Toy Museum recently opened to the public, offering visitors a unique journey throughout the centuries, using toys tour guides.
The fairy tale begins as soon as the visitor arrives at the imposing tower. The beautiful 19th-century building with neo-Gothic, Baroque, and Art nouveau elements is part of the Kouloura House in Palaio Faliro, where the museum is located.
There’s so much to see here. Find dolls with traditional costumes as well as Barbie’s “grandmothers”, mini carousels, even lead soldiers with spears – some wear foustanelles! Other highlights include the wooden horse that Eleftherios Venizelos gave to his grandson, a miniature of the Averof battleship, a wooden puppet theater, motorbikes, trains and airplanes, puppets, and so much more. Colorful, attractive, and curates for the best experience, all these toys arouse the curiosity, as well as emotions of joy and nostalgia for the older visitors. Inquisitive young minds begin to ask questions. One little boy asked his grandfather about his toys, and how kids played years ago.
While antique toys are out of reach for curious minds and hands, replicas are available for sale, and kids are encouraged to touch them.
Ancient dolls are among the toys on display at the new Benaki Toy Museum in Athens. IMAGE: benaki.gr
One of the best collections in Europe
The core of the new museum is the collection of Maria Argyriadis, donated to the Benaki in 1990, is considered among the 10 best of its kind in Europe. It includes 20,000 toys, mainly from Greece, as well as from Europe, America, Africa and from the East.
In an interview for the website Protagon, Maria explained that when she was a child, her parents could not buy expensive toys.
“A month before Christmas, my mother picked up all the old toys and repaired them. She cleaned them up, mended the dolls’ clothes and put them under the Christmas tree.”
This cultivated her love for old toys, and she acquired more throughout her life.
The first toy of her collection is a small yellow bear. The exhibit includes her explanations of the pieces and how she acquired them.
“I bought it from a peddler. It was torn, beaten up, one of its legs was ready to be pulled of and one eye was missing. As I looked at it, I remembered my own bear and I wondered how it is possible for someone to throw it away. I cleared it and I mended it. So this collection began.”
Maria thinks that the stories behind the toys make them important and lovable. Her favorite toy — the wooden furniture for a miniature living room — was made by her mother from wood that they used for the stove. It was during the German occupation where the times were grim, full of the horrors of war and that “toy was a rare moment of joy”.
At first, Maria gathered toys from abroad, but in a conference a researcher asked her why she didn’t collect Greek toys. Soon she began to look for Greek toys, discovering Greek manufacturers. She discovered that Greek manufacturers produce great toys, especially the ones manufactured toys for the fairs.
This toy horse was a gift from Eleftherios Venizelos to his grandson. It’s currently exhibited at Benaki Toy Museum. IMAGE: benaki.gr
3000 toys on display
The museum features about 3000 toys, with emphasis given to the Greek collection, dating from antiquity, the Roman and Byzantine eras, and the handmade traditional toys made for the panigiria.
There is also a separate collection consisting of reconstructions of folk toys of the early 20th century, by members of the KAPI. (Open Seniors Protection Centers).
The European collection consists of dolls and toys, urban and folk. They range in age from the 17th-20th century, mainly from England, France, and Germany, as well as European dolls of the 19th and 20th century.
Nora Hatzopoulou, head of the museum collections, spoke about the toys.
“It is interesting and fascinating for the children to see that their toys have some similarities with the old ones. How, for example, a ball and playing football in the sandlot were evolved into a computer game, or how a doll from ancient years had mobile parts like the modern toys. They can see how they made it at home with pieces of cloth, how its shape changed over time. How children used to play with the old clothes and dolls’ kitchen items while the same process is being done today on the computer.”
Finally, visitors have the opportunity to visit the museum’s library where they can read books about the toys and games, see archival material and photos, read facts about Greek toy makers, and view any of the 3000 books of children’s literature.
Toy plane. Part of the collection at Benaki Toy Museum. IMAGE: benaki.gr
The Benaki Toy Museum is located at 14 Poseidonos & 1 Tritonos St., in Palaio Faliro. Open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 10:00 – 18:00. General admission tickets are € 9; €7 for students, seniors, teachers, archaeologists, conservators, members of Hellenic Chamber of Fine Arts, Hellenic Ministry of Culture card holders, and European Youth Card holders).
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Chryssoula Katsarou was born & raised in Athens. She studied journalism and international relations in Athens and in Leeds, UK. She’s written for the newspaper, Ethnos, for 17 years. For several years, Chryssoula translated books — mainly crime fiction — for the publishing house, “Kaktos”. She loves books, cinema, world politics, and most of all, a good dinner with good friends and good wine. She and her husband have two children.