While time machines may still be a work of science fiction today, there sits a little-known magic portal, further down from St George’s Square in Valletta, that takes adults and children on a journey into the past, into the precious childhood of one Vincent Brown.
Brown collects toys, anything from miniature cars and figurines to pushchairs and rag dolls – “anything with a memorable story to tell,” as he puts it. Although he is not the only toy collector in Malta, he is one of the pioneers of this passion. His collection sits precisely at 222, Republic Street, in what used to house the maids’ quarters of the four-century-old Casa Pereira next door.
A wooden sign with The Toy Museum emblazoned across a square, forest green frame hangs from the façade. The figure of a wooden toy soldier, together with a pair of children riding a red and black train, invites you in.
One scorching afternoon, in a darkish corner next to a window, the founder of the museum himself was gently leafing through a battered copy of an old novel.
“Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said, gesturing to a metal chair fit for a toddler’s bottom. I could feel him grin at the confusion plastered across my face.
“Don’t worry. It’s sturdier than most chairs you’ve sat on in your lifetime, for sure.”
As I sat on this little absurdity, I felt like a child again, surrounded by neatly organised, miniature cars behind glass windows that were just waiting to be played with.
“I wasn’t always this passionate about collecting toys, you know,” Brown mused, putting his book down and following my gaze.
“It all started in the 1980s. A friend of mine had a box of toys to get rid of, which had about eight or nine pieces in it. He wanted me to give them to my children as a gift, but my kids were too young to play with them. The metal edges could have hurt them. And yet, I didn’t want to throw them away, because that would have been a great waste. So I took care of them myself instead. I cleaned them, polished them, oiled them and kept them. That’s how I became a collector.”
Brown opened the museum in Malta in 1998, after being inspired by a toy museum in Britain. Spread over three floors, the magical museum gives its visitors a peek at the history of toys itself, predominantly from the post-war era onwards. The first trip down memory lane starts at the very doorstep of the museum, especially for boys or grown men: the ground floor displays a vast collection of toy cars from all over the world: from Italy, America, England, Germany and even Japan.
There is also a treat for the girls. A doll dressed in a striped, red and white dress peers over from a small, navy blue pushchair that rests on top of one of the showcases.
Next to it, there is a vibrant red toy cart reminiscent of a childhood of playing in the streets that is long gone in most Maltese villages.
“Cars were a rare sight in those days,” Brown said. “You’d get a maximum of five parked alongside the whole of Republic Street. I used to spend days on end whizzing down the road with a cart like that. It was so much fun, playing outdoors and experiencing the outside world. The street was my playground, literally. Most children these days don’t have that, because they’re too busy trying to be adults. I have lots to be thankful for.”
The collector’s fascination with toys continues. In the basement of the house, there are more displays of miniature cars, but with a difference. One of them is filled with Matchbox cars, some of which are special editions. In the other, the theme is film, a must for the lover of the motion picture, featuring toy cars of beloved film characters such as Mr Bean, Pink Panther, James Bond 007 and Batman. Other showcases are specially dedicated to figurines, planes and truck engines from different cultures and periods.
A collection of rag dolls awaits discovery upstairs, particularly a doll called Jacko. Originally a souvenir, rather than a doll for play, Jacko the sailor doll was given to Brown as a gift when he was three years old in 1942. He has kept Jacko very close to his heart since then. In his new residence, Jacko found the long retirement he deserves.
“I’m very lucky,” the 70-something-year-old man murmured softly as he rocked his chair back and forth.
“My hobby is valuable on more than one level, and not just to myself. It builds connections. It’s both social and personal – that’s why it is often an expensive exercise, because everyone wants this connection.
“I could have very easily started collecting stamps, but would you feel a strong connection with a stamp, in the same way you would with a toy that’s from your childhood, or from your mum’s childhood? Probably not.”
The adult is not the only person to be enchanted. Even children, especially primary school ones, often visit the museum and gape at the toys their parents and grandparents used to play with. The toy tells a story, to adults and children alike.
“Nostalgia is a very powerful thing both for the collector and the museum visitor,” Brown added.
“The memory of that toy before you is something that is particular to you and me, the only thing that’s left of our dear childhood, and even of the person who gave it to you. It’s from a past time, a past life. And you want to hold on to that, because it means something.”
The Toy Museum is open at 222, Republic Street, Valletta, from Monday to Friday between 10am and 3pm. Entrance fee for adults is €2, while children go in free of charge.