Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service


Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.


Small Wonder: Worlds in a Box

Photographer David Levinthal grew up in the 1950s, the age of playsets. In SITES' exhibition, Small Wonder: Worlds in a Box, he re-created their presence through evocative photographs that stimulate reflection. Throughout his career, Levinthal has photographed toys, objects, or pictures in order to offer a new perspective on history and popular culture. Using one of the world's five 20-by-24-inch Polaroid cameras, Levinthal has captured both the artificiality and the reality of the event he has arranged with sets and figurines. In Small Wonder, curated by Charles Stainback, the line between fact and fiction, or reality and fantasy, blurred.

Levinthal said, "Ever since I began working with toys in '72, I've been intrigued with the idea that these seemingly benign objects could take on such incredible power and personality, simply by the way they were photographed."

In the 1940s, the Louis Marx Toy Company of New York City introduced these playsets, which contained soft plastic figures, props, and tin environments. The "worlds in a box" became immensely popular because they satisfied the post-World War II generation's need for a neat and tidy self-image of American society. According to Levinthal, "Parents bought the Marx Toys dollhouses-father, mother, older sister, brother, and baby of indeterminate sex-by the thousands for their daughters. Boys had Alamos and gas stations. Toys exist for a reason. They allow you to enter a fantasy world. When you're a child with a cap gun, suddenly you're Hopalong Cassidy."

SITES' exhibition included fifty large-scale, 16" x 20" photographs and five original playsets in dioramas. The playsets and the photographs lure viewers into the recent past, when an increasingly complex world could be compartmentalized, and then further reduced into a self-contained box.

This Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition toured from 2001-2003.





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