The Big Interview: Childhood magic of father’s toys

Among the exhibits was a hat box Alex had filled with model soldiers.
Among the exhibits was a hat box Alex had filled with model soldiers.
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When Alex Douglas, former caretaker at the National School, found out that he had terminal cancer in October 2010, he set about creating a display room for his lifetime collection of model soldiers, Action Men, Airfix and other toys.

Sadly this was never completed before his death the following year, but Alex left his array of toys to his three daughters Anastasia, Natalia and Hayley.

Determined that their father’s collection would be appreciated, Anastasia organised the exhibition ‘Action!’ at the National Trust Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, and was touched to see how the toys resonated with generations of visitors.

**What inspired the collection? Dad was inspired by his childhood, his creative imagination and love of play. He was very musical, theatrical, and wise. He collected from a young age, made his own toys and enjoyed travel and different cultures when living abroad. Dad’s collection was never formally displayed, but when he got ill he decided to undertake his soldier room project, installing cases, spot lights and unveiling part of his collection. Until then we didn’t know how vast it was and it was a delight to him and to us to see it.

**How did the exhibition come about? I sent emails, not expecting any responses, but Lucy from Sudbury replied and she loved the ‘lost and found’ theme of losing Dad but finding his treasures; the soldiers and toys coming out of the hat box; the plethora of items from the early 1900s to recent years. We came up with Action! and the story of how Dad’s collection could be shared, having been kept and cherished but until then not displayed publicly. Dad’s story ties in with the ethos of the museum: magic, play, vision and imagination.

**Which models stand out? They are all incredibly special and unique, with some very rare items. The Action men and GI Joe figure stand out, one of which has been placed into the permanent collection at the museum as a donation by us. A key visual part of the story of Action! was the hat box with thousands of soldiers, trinkets and treasures that Dad had for many years.

**How is your Dad remembered? He was and still is a very well loved figure at ‘The Nash’ and was often playing guitar or adding more toys and trinkets to a collection in his store cupboard. We also present the Alexander Douglas award for musical achievement each year to an exemplary student.

**How did the exhibition go and are more planned? It was an enormous success. Thousands will have seen Dad’s collection and when I volunteered as a room guide one day I was very moved by generations of family members gathering around cases, sharing stories and finding connections to the items. They thought it was a lovely story and could get a sense of Dad’s character from the collection. I was thrilled to see people take great delight in their own nostalgia. The collection is safely stored now, but we are sure Dad’s treasures won’t stay in boxes for long. We’ve had a very positive response from the V&A in London so there is potential to work with them.

We also plan to donate other items where they can be loved and cherished for years to come.