Cold War Toys: Material Cultures of Childhood in Argentina

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Communication and Media


This project provides a cultural, political and affective history of Argentine toys during the Cold War, specifically between 1946 (the emergence of Peronism) and 1983 (the end of the last civic-military dictatorship in Argentina). It will analyse their production, circulation, consumption, value and meaning as material playthings. Moving beyond the obsession with the US-USSR divide, particularly in terms of popular and material culture, the project aims to shift our attention to other spheres of ideological struggle, namely the material culture of childhood. Research questions include: How did political struggles influence the design, commercialisation, advertising and consumption of playthings in Cold War Latin America? What role did toys play in movements for social change, populist governments and authoritarian regimes? And what role do toys, souvenirs, crafts and other everyday objects play today in the collective remembrance of the Argentine traumatic past? The project brings together museums, sites of memory, collectors, curators, educators, practitioners and academics via a series of public engagment activities, including an exhibition at the Remembrance Park-Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism in the midst of events commemorating the 45th anniversary of the 1976 coup (2021) and the 40th anniversary of the return to democracy (2023), a series of workshops with teachers at the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory, and a co-authored book.

Since the first Peronist era, Argentina has been at the forefront of recognising the cultural, political and historical value of toys in Latin America. The Southern Cone country also has one of the region's more progressive memory politics. While scholars' research into toys ends in the 1960s with the decline of the local toy industry, this project will also consider toys and games produced and consumed after that decade, particularly those manufactured and played with during and after the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Based on collaborative action research and using a broad theoretical and conceptual framework that includes concepts and methods from media archaeology, memory studies, political philosophy, art and literature, the project will engage with factual, industrial and historical information as well as with the symbolic, political, and even poetic narratives attached to children's material cultures.

Cold War Toys will thus consider toys as commercial goods, as the products of an influential (trans)national industry, and as collectors' items, historical documents, souvenirs and narrative devices. Toys bring together intellect and emotion, carrying meanings and experiences. They are objects of transmission and mirrors of a culture. Toys are the mediums through which children first grasp history. They symbolize the spirit of a time, the vision that a particular society has of its present, and the role that children play in it. Toys also tell us a great deal about our relationship with the market, for we learn to be consumers with toys. The uses and values of toys demonstrate that they are not only representations of history but are themselves part of history and, in that sense, they are of considerable cultural importance.

The project is timely because the Cold War continues to resonate in the tense context of US/Latin America relations, not least as the regions continue to deal with the fallout of Donald Trump's return to a 'bad neighbor' policy (2017-2021). In South America, moreover, the relatives of the dictatorships' victims continue to protest past atrocities, exhume graves, and actively press legal claims against perpetrators. Domestic toy industries in the region have also all but disappeared. The collections the project will look at remind us of a time when national production was valued. They say a great deal not just about the history and memory of toys but also about the industries of these countries and the history of design in the region.


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Blejmar J (2022) Catalogue-Poster Scale 1:43

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Blejmar J (2022) Malvinas en un Blíster [Malvinas in a Blister] in Practicas de Oficio. Investigación y reflexion en Ciencias Sociales

Title Muñecos para Clara Anahi 
Description Exhibition in collaboration with the University of Buenos Aires of the series of photographs taken by Helen Zout, first displayed at Escala 1:43 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2023 
Impact The exhibition opens on 14 of March at the Facultad de Agronomia in Buenos Aires during the Memory Week in Argentina, a week dedicated to commemorate the victims of the 1976 military coup and the 30,000 disappeared people. This artwork highlights the dramas of hundreds of children who are still missing in Argentina, many of them appropriated by the murderers of their parents. Zout's work is both an homage to the struggles of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and a reminder that the past hasn't past and we still have work to do if we want to find these children, now adults. 
Title Scale 1:43. Toys, History and Material Culture 
Description ESCALA 1/43: Toys, History and Material Culture, Memory Park, 6 August 2022/6 November 2022 Jordana Blejmar Natalia Fortuny Martín Legón Can a toy embody our history? What does its materiality, which is manufactured, advertised, collected, and entangled in games, have to say to us? Escala 1/43 opens a dialogue between our political history and a selection of toys produced or commercialized in Argentina in the last century. It also invites us to explore the presence of these objects in contemporary artistic artifacts. Toys - those things we interact with from a very young age - comprise a non-linear journey that reveals vital areas of our material culture. Far from offering a nostalgic or melancholic perspective on the lost world of childhood, here toys are both playful objects and a fundamental part of cultural heritage: historical documents, icons of the times, devices of fiction. "If we survey the entire history of toys," wrote Walter Benjamin, "it becomes evident that the question of size has far greater importance than might have been supposed." Giorgio Agamben also noted that toys, dating back to the spheres of the sacred and the practical-economic, invites us to rethink our relationship with time through the process of miniaturization of everyday objects. The exhibition, therefore, is organized around the idea of scale, taking its title from the proportions of one of the pieces on display: a miniature Ford Falcon from the national manufacturer Buby, which was popular in the 1970s. These scale model cars were sold in Argentine toy stores at the same time as the car itself became a symbol of dictatorial actions and of an automobile company that in its advertisements urged to "keep the country on the move". The exhibition opens with a section of building blocks and games from the 1940s and 1950s. This area traces a dialogue between the pedagogical theories of the 19th century, the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century and the toys distributed during the Peronist era. The tour continues with a space dedicated to political violence, including pieces associated with events that occurred during the dictatorship: the 100th anniversary celebration of the so-called "Conquest of the Desert", toys connected to Malvinas, and the war turned into a board game. The following section highlights how certain toys encapsulate two different worlds to depict the sexual division of labor: future male workers and future housewives. Other works display scenarios inhabited by gloomy spirits: babies, dolls, and scale figures evoke the traumatic and the sinister through specters, doubles, and missing persons. Some final images recall the atmosphere of the 1990s and beyond: a peculiar end-of-party mood, a sense of the force of neoliberal policies of consumption and exclusion, and the idea of art as a sheltered space for collective encounters. By bringing together heterogeneous objects and artifacts, Escala 1/43 invites us to pay attention to the trajectories of Argentine toys, to the agency of their materiality and their recurrence in contemporary visual productions. In short, as Bruno Latour suggests, things produce things, and have concrete effects on the world. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact The press has stated that the exhibition 'reveals the documentary value of toys' to approach Argentine history ( and how toys should be considered 'a fundamental part of our cultural wealth' (orman una parte fundamental de nuestro patrimonio cultural.) Other impactful outcomes of the exhibition so far: We are exhibiting a key artwork of a photographer (Helen Zout) that she did not even know she had (only realised it was worth showing it when we asked about it). Her assistant and fellow photographer Gabriel Diaz has said in this respect that they considered me 'co-authors' of the piece. They are now showing this piece in a biennial and the Modern Museum in Buenos Aires has expressed interest in acquiring it. We showed one of Santiago Porter's photographs for the first time. I saw it on his Instagram page and asked him if we could use it for the exhibition. He did not include it in his monumental series of images Bruma but only realised of its value when we showed interest in the piece. The Museo Moderno did not know they had a record of a key performance conceptual artist Alberto Heredia until we asked for permission to use it in the exhibition. We are starting a possible collaboration with the Museo del Juguete in San Isidro. Its director came to see the exhibition and told us that they do not own any toys from the Peronist era so we are considering lending an important part of the collection of toys acquired for the exhibition so they can display it for free and keep it in their collections. Villa Fiorito and Villa Jardin collaborations - they bought a suing machine with the fees for their artworks We are organising some activities with schools and the education area of the museum Martin Legon, Jony Perel and ByF created new commissioned artworks for the exhibition 
Description During the first year of Cold War Toys, we are happy to report significant achievements in the form of new knowledge, new research methods, new resources identified and new collaborations.

The project's exhibition Escala 1:43 highlighted the importance of looking at 'history from below' and the role that objects that frame our everyday life but often pass unnoticed play in contentious periods of history. Escala 1:43 explored the narratives attached to toys and playthings such as building blocks distributed by the Fundación Eva Perón in the 1940s to help raise the future architects of the 'New Argentina' promised by Perón, boardgames accompanying celebratory narratives of massacres of indigenous people during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, and dolls collected by a grandmother of a disappeared baby, among others. Challenging the widespread idea that agency is only human, Cold War Toys has demonstrated that certain toys played an active role in the struggles of the second half of the twentieth century in Argentina. The wide and positive press coverage that the exhibition received in major newspapers in Argentina is evidence of the originality of our research.

In terms of new research methods, co-creation (a way of 'conducting research with communities, rather than on communities') and curation as a method meant that various people (artists, collectors, curators, academics) and institutions (museums, archives, sites of memory, etc.) worked together, co-sharing and co-producing knowledge. Two examples of co-creation were the handmade toys displayed in the exhibition and commissioned from the collective Belleza y Felicidad, and a series of images by photographer Helen Zout that she had never exhibited in public before.

Zout's images became one of the highlights of the exhibition. Since then she has been declared an illustrious citizen of La Plata, her birthplace, and was invited to exhibit this work at other venues, more recently at the University of Buenos Aires during the Memory Week. We were also invited to write an introductory text for that exhibition. Another key finding of the exhibition was a photograph of a performance by artist Alberto Heredia that the Modern Museum of Buenos Aires did not know they had until we asked for it. Finally, many of the antique toys acquired by the project with the assistance of consultants and collectors are now part of a small but rather unique collection of Cold War toys in Argentina.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the new collaborations created by this project, including partnerships with the Parque de la Memoria, Museo del Juguete, FoCo (Instituto Gino Germani), and artists and collectors in both Argentina and Uruguay.

Cold War Toys had two main aims:

(a) Extending our understanding and knowledge of the diverse roles that toys and toy industries played during the Cold War in Argentine and (b) to explore the way those toys are used today to remember the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

In terms of the objectives, we made progress in examining the links between ideological and political conflicts and children's material cultures in Argentina. Findings were shared in the exhibition but also in ad hoc outcomes, including an article in Spanish on Malvinas Toys co-authored by the PI and one of the consultants of the project, and another article that the PI and the RA are preparing on Peronist Toys to submit to an academic journal in the UK. Another objective - raise awareness of the role that toys played during the dictatorship - was met via the exhibition and the talks that the PI and collaborators gave to schools, universities and other groups who visited the exhibition. This objective was also met via interviews that the curators offered to both newspapers and radio programmes in Argentina and the UK (including a BBC Free Thinking Radio 3 programme dedicated to 'toys'). Furthermore, the PI raised her profile as an expert in this area and developed new skills in curation. We are currently also editing a photo-book, which will include images and material not displayed in the exhibition. The project also offered the RA several opportunities to enhance her career: she has co-written some of the outputs with the PI, was invited to give a talk at a prestigious research group in Argentina, assisted in the curation of the exhibition, and offered guest lectures in one of Liverpool's MA programmes. Proof of her career progress is that she has now secured a contract with a UK institution as a Lecturer in Latin American Studies.
Exploitation Route We expect our findings to be taken forward by museums and sites of memory in Latin America, particularly those committed to remembering the dictatorships of the last century, who will hopefully highlight the role that material culture, including 'disobedient' and 'contentious' objects, had in the violence of those years, and in the memory struggles and cultures of the post-dictatorship era. We expect this project to be a milestone for scholars in Latin American cultural studies, play studies, history and affect who are interested in producing new knowledge in this underexplored area. We hope our project serves as an example of the importance of investing, preserving, and engaging with toys as historical documents, particularly in developing countries, as currently there are only a few toy museums in the continent, and the toy collections held in both private and public archives are vulnerable and at risk of decay and disappearance.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description In the year that Argentina celebrates the 40th anniversary of the return to democracy, and with almost one year to the end of the project, Cold War Toys is already showing evidence of impact in several areas related to the transmission of the cultural memory of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, and the Cold War era more broadly: • The Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires has bought for their collection one of the artworks (Belleza y Felicidad) commissioned by the project for the exhibition. • A private collector bought one of the displayed artworks (Pablo Peisino) after visiting the exhibition. • One of the artists (Helen Zout) acknowledged the key role we had in bringing to light an artwork that she did not think was worth displaying and that became the highlight of the exhibition (72 black-and-white photographs of dolls collected by the grandmother of a girl disappeared during the dictatorship). • After seeing this artwork, the Memory Park decided to prepare a solo exhibition of Zout's work. Zout has also been declared Illustrious Citizen of La Plata (her home city). • We are building a new partnership with the Toy Museum in San Isidro so they can keep and display the collection of toys bought by the project. Particularly important are the toys distributed by the Fundación Eva Peron. The Museum does not currently have any such toys. • The Memory Park, where the exhibition took place, decided to make permanent changes to its building to give more space to curators as a direct consequence of our exhibition and visitors' comments in our survey. • The Centre for Culture and Everyday Life in Liverpool is organizing an international symposium on Material Cultures of Play and has invited us to open the event with a talk about our project, proving the development of a new research area, led by the institution that hosts this award. • We are in the process of analyzing the data from our survey to identify further areas of impact/beneficiaries.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Media interview at the Memory Park 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Media interview at the Memory Park published in social media to attract new audiences to the exhibition
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Press conference and inauguration Escala 1:43 exhibit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact On August 5 we organised a press conference with journalists from the main national newspapers at the Memory Park. We (the co-curators of the exhibition) gave them a guided tour and as a result several reviews were published in different newspapers. We were also interviewed in the radio. (Telam) (Tiempo Argentino) (Radio Cut)

On 6 August we organised the opening of the exhibition with the presence of Pamela Malewicz, Undersecretary of Human Rights of the City of Buenos Aires; Nora Hochbaum, Director of the Parque de la Memoria; Vera Jarach, Mother of Plaza de Mayo.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022