Written by Shana Fung
Buzz! Clank! Thud! It’s been a spectacularly noisy week at the New-York Historical Society as an army of Museum staff worked day and night to put everything together for Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection, open Friday, October 28.
In the midst of the craziness, we managed to pull aside Mike Thornton, curator of Holiday Express, for a quick chat to learn some interesting tidbits about him and his exhibition.
Shana (S): Thanks so much for chatting with us about Holiday Express! It’s an exhibition that our families look forward to every holiday season. So tell us, what is your official title at the New-York Historical Society and what does it mean you get to do?
Mike Thornton (MT): I am the associate curator of material culture, and I’m tasked with looking at our collections that deal with the social history of the United States as understood through objects. There are curators of lots of things, but I’ve always gravitated more toward how U.S. historical events are understood by looking at everyday objects.
S: Sounds like a big job with a lot of responsibilities but also a ton of fun! Can you tell us a little about the Holiday Express exhibition?
MT: Holiday Express is an annual holiday exhibition in which we highlight select pieces from the Jerni Collection. At any one time, there are only about 300 pieces on display out of a collection of about 11,000 individual pieces! So it really is just the tip tip top of the iceberg—kind of like a teaser trailer of the scope and scale of the collection. Holiday Express is meant to show off about hundred years of both American and European toy trains and accessories, and you’ll find things from as early as 1850 to about 1960.
S: What was your favorite childhood toy? Did you play with toy trains as a kid?
MT: I have always been fascinated by transportation and steam power, but I never had a train set of my own. I loved old toys and frequently wondered why my toys weren’t made of metal and lacked all the details the older ones seemed to possess.
But my father did have my grandfather’s Lionel train set from the late 1920s, and even though it was broken and didn’t run, I could tell that it was very special to my dad as a memento of his father.
S: What is your favorite piece in the entire show? If that’s too hard, can you name your top three?
MT: The Lionel Standard Gauge Blue Comet. It’s just one of those toys that has all the right stuff. The generation that it was made for was mad about it. It was extremely expensive—easily four to five hundred dollars in today’s money—which has led to it having a certain mystique about it.
Today, it is highly coveted by collectors and is often the crown jewel of a collection. We have many crown jewels in our collection, but the Blue Comet is special. It’s clearly been played with, and the roof has even been repainted by a child’s hand in a slightly different shade of blue.
S: I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for that repainted roof! Before you go, do you have any words of advice for kids out there who dream of being a curator one day?
MT: I do. Stay curious and ask questions. Ask questions about commonplace things. Ask about everyday life. Think, 100 years from now, what thing of yours might end up in a museum?
History is biased and many things, and people, fall through the cracks. Things that end up in a museum are usually things that have value or were well-loved. So, talk to people, older people. There is value in memory, and older people can teach us how we can respond to special challenges that we will one day face.