Museum uses toys to bring military history to children
SARATOGA SPRINGS A new exhibit at the New York State Military Museum featuring classic GI Joe toy figures and model tanks in historic battle situations is bringing more young visitors to the museum.
“There has been a significant uptick in attendance. We are getting a lot of families,” said the museum’s chief curator, Courtney Burns. “Fathers are bringing in their sons and telling them: ‘This is what I played with when I was your age.’ ”
The exhibit, “Toys and Tanks: The Model Army” opened Dec. 11 and will be on display at the museum at 61 Lake Ave. in Saratoga Springs through the winter and spring.
The GI Joe exhibit is from the collection of Tearle Ashby of Ballston Spa, and the action figures, some dating back to the birth of the GI Joe toy in 1964, are used in dioramas showing, for example, an Army medical field unit or the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.
The model tank portion of the exhibit features tanks built by Lt. Col. Paul Fanning, a retired combat veteran of the New York Army National Guard. Fanning builds tank models from kits but customizes his creations extensively so they can be placed in a historic battle setting.
“They are very detailed and historically accurate,” Burns said.
“My models are meant to be an educational piece,” Fanning said. “I’m producing something to pay tribute to veterans, past and present.”
The tanks represent those used by the New York National Guard in World War II. For example, one of Fanning’s dioramas shows a scene from May 1944 in Anzio, Italy, depicting tanks in A Company of the 191st Tank Battalion fighting German forces.
The exhibit is in the museum’s rotating exhibit space in the middle of the former New York state armory.
Burns said both parts of Toys and Tanks include video displays. One of the videos is a documentary about the creation of the GI Joe action figure, another video is a War Department film about the 27th Division, a New York division that fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Ashby, who loaned the museum a portion of his large GI Joe collection, said he has between 50 and 100 figures at the museum. His total collection includes more than 1,000 GI Joe figures.
He loved the GI Joe action figures when he was a boy and started collecting them again about 20 years ago. The Hasbro Co. started producing 12-inch GI Joe action toys in 1964. Since that time, the larger action figures were discontinued, replaced with smaller figures, then brought back in limited numbers in recent years.
“It’s the coolest toy ever made,” Ashby said, explaining that GI Joe changed the whole landscape for boys’ toys.
Ashby has also created military-themed dioramas with the help of museum staff. He said six GI Joe figures were used in the diorama showing the raising of the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.