Sintra Toy Museum: Living toys

They number 60,000 and even if they are inanimate figures, they come to life with each passing visitor who revives the memories of his own childhood. Toys with the pretension of being far more that this, of telling the history of man. And they do.

Museums What's New — 29 August 2011 by Maria Cano
Sintra Toy Museum: Living toys

João Arbués' collection comprises 60,000 toys, exhibited on the three floors of the museum in Sintra (Photograph: Carla Canivete)

João was 14 and had a hobby that became a passion he would pursue for the rest of his life: to collect toys. He always had a preference for cars and soldiers. As the wealthy people they were, his grandparents would give him plenty of toys and the little one even had an account in the finest toy store in Lisbon. He studied in England and, in the meanwhile, travelled around the world with an idea already forming in his head: to create a toy museum. But not just any ordinary museum. One that would tell the history of man, through toys.

“Many people ask: ‘how come a man collects pots and pans and dolls?’, because it had to be everything, and that is what is unusual” in a museum of this kind, explains Ana Arbués Moreira, director of the Museu do Brinquedo (Toy Museum) and wife of João Arbués Moreira, mentor and heart and soul of the institution.

Even if his health has betrayed him, he has not lost the love and desire of wandering around his collection that comprises 60,000 toys, exhibited on the three floors of the museum in Sintra, close to Lisbon. Added to this impressive number, there is also a reserve stock of 15,000 to 20,000 objects. Dolls, cars, aeroplanes, trains, houses, and a huge variety of games cram the museum’s neat, brightly lit shelves.

Yet there is one item that ranks as the most special, discloses João Arbués Moreira. Shaped like a baseball, only bigger, with a drab red body, white steering wheel and small black wheels,parked” right on the ground floor, is the collector’s very own pedal car. Always attentive, Ana confirms her husband’s preference for cars, adding that they themselves have an “old car”, and that João “used to race, and was a karting champion”.

Soldiers come in second on the list of preferences, and proof of this are the 11,000 that tell of the wars fought by man in the four corners of the world. The swastika and Hitler’s troops marching under the command of their leader are represented in great number, giving rise to controversial feelings. Sometimes, older Germans feel disturbed by them. But they also disturb other people. “In the concentration camps they obliged (prisoners) to make those toys (soldiers), they had to paint them”, engineer Arbués Moreira starts explaining. And, seeming to travel back in time, his wife recalls an incident that occurred in the museum sometime ago.

Two Polish couples were visiting the museum. We walked up to the wives and asked: ‘what’s wrong with your husbands, why are they crying so much?’. And they answered: ‘they were in a concentration camp and had to paint 60 of these toys a day or they would be sent to the gas chamber’.”


Everything has a beginning

The collection started at João’s home, but the house was too small for so many relics. The Sintra Municipal Council then found him a place, which was also rather small, but the problem was soon to be solved. “One day Edite Estrela (current Euro MP and former president of the municipality) went there and left a written comment: pity that such a fine collection is housed in such a small space”, explains Ana Arbués Moreira, adding that when Edite was elected president of the municipality, her husband went to see her and they managed to find a bigger place, the former fire station, where the museum still is today.

After the space was redone, the current museum came to life in 1998. Eleven years later it still attracts both children and grown-ups alike, and the range of pieces from various eras seeps into the life stories of those who visit it. An old man from the Alentejo, a region in southern Portugal with some very poor areas, visited the museum on an excursion, and he also revisited his childhood. He had never owned a toy, except for one he had crafted himself with his own hands. And he cried.

Because I never had any money, I never had any toys, I only made a hoop and stick for myself and now I see it in a museum”, the old man said when the museum’s director asked him why he was crying.

This toy consisted of a large metal hoop which was rolled along the ground guided by a long stick with a metal hook on it that was attached to the hoop. This is a game which has been played all over the world since antiquity, made out of a variety of materials, such as metal or rubber. “There are some amazing stories, because everybody played with one, whether they are Russian, French, Polish or Chinese”, the director remarks. And walking along the corridors we can perceive the wonder, the joy or nostalgia each toy brings to children and adults. “How wonderful, mummy!”, cries out a little girl from the height of her youth, calling her mother’s attention to a large, hand-made red doll house.

This is indeed a family museum, where several generations can come together and teach, learn and share. It is a lesson in history, where the characters come to life in the shape of this or that doll, this or that type of transport. On the second floor, with more or less garish colours, the small cars on a scale of 1:43, of the Italian brand Mercury and the German Märkin, manufactured between 1950 and 1970, are entitled to a shelf of their own.

But there are also larger and more imposing cars. Such as the 1954 red Ferrari commissioned by Enzo Ferrari as a gift to his friends and accompanied by a photo of racing legend Fangio. There is also a wing of the museum devoted to Portuguese toys. Displayed in a place of honour is a train from the Fabrinca toy factory, as well as the blue racing car of the first Portuguese toy manufacturer, Luciano Moura, both made of wood. But it is also possible to see farm animals, carts, cars, boats or beach toys.

In general, these seem more fragile than foreign-made toys. The answer is simple. “Portugal was a very poor country and the toys we had were a copy of those made in Spain, which in turn were copied from German toys. The Germans and the English were the great toy manufacturers”, explains the director.

As well as toy cars, the museum also displays dolls such as Nancy, that proved an unprecedented commercial success in the Iberian Peninsula because it was an adult doll, with an exclusive wardrobe and accessible to many households. The success was such that Famosa, its manufacturer, sold one million dolls a year until being outdone by Barbie‘s success in the 1990s. There on the museum’s first floor, however, they are not competing with each other. The Barbies are displayed next to Nancy, both in voluptuous party dresses and swimming costumes, as well as a few Kens, dressed up as pilots, skiers etc.

But the museum does not live on cars and dolls alone. There is also an imaginary city, composed of real buildings and monuments, among which the Toy Museum itself, created from lego bricks through photographs. Pedro Nascimento, its creator, manages to provide the feeling of reality on a small scale.


The collection needs looking after

And who looks after these toys? Every year they are removed from the display cabinets and are taken to the so-called infirmary, or restoration department, where they are cleaned or oiled. They are all entirely functional and well conserved. Therefore, the restoration department must have its hands full judging from the doll heads which lie in a box placed on a workbench, on the third floor, surrounded by many other toys, not far from a complete toolbox. And the visitors also need looking after. So they can learn and pass on what they have learnt, so they can enjoy the museum and wish to return. João can be seen wandering around the museum every day in his wheelchair, and the visitors are happy to have the opportunity to meet the owner of such a rich collection. But they also ask difficult questions. “Why can’t you walk?”, children usually ask him. The collector replies: “My batteries have been stolen and now nobody winds me up.” Without the collector’s passion and persistence there would be no one to wind up so many thousands of toys.


Address: Rua Visconde Monserrate 26, 2710-591 Sintra
Phone: +351 219 106 016
Fax: +351 219 230 059


€4 (ask for discount admissions)

Opening times

From 10am to 5.30pm – last entry
Closed on Mondays, 1 January, 1 May, 25 December

Getting to the Museum

Train: Sintra Line – Sintra station


There are few places to park near the museum

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