David Barnhilll and Stephen Rueff are the yin and yang of toy collectors.
Rueff, who teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is thoughtful and soft-spoken as he waxes professorially over the sociopolitical context of, say, the X-Men.
“They are outsiders who have come together to represent our multicultural society in which we search for a shared sense of values,” he said.
“And they’re really cool!” interjects Barnhill with the exuberance of someone who has just chugalugged a pot of coffee.
Both of their sensibilities are on display at the University of Minnesota’s Goldstein Museum. Friends since junior high, the two Twin Cities men collaborated on “America’s Monsters, Superheroes and Villains,” a collection of toys from the 1950s through the early ’90s.
Rueff hopes the collection provides insight into how each decade’s toys reflect the culture in which they were created. But for Barnhill — a salesman who is 57 going on 9 — toys are about only one thing: fun.
“I missed that whole growing-up process,” he gloated.
When Barnhill talks about giving his toys “a good home” and “keeping them safe and happy,” you wonder if he knows they aren’t real.
Or, as Rueff would say: “Dave lives and embodies the spirit of the toys.”
The 400 or so pieces in the exhibit all come from Barnhill’s personal collection, which includes at least 200,000 toys. He isn’t sure of the exact number. An attempt to catalog all the items two years ago collapsed under the immensity of the task, but people who have seen the stockpile — which he keeps in what he gleefully describes as “a secret crypt” — say that number is a conservative estimate.
“It’s every toy I’ve owned in my life,” said Barnhill, who is still an avid toy buyer.
Nor does he have any idea what the collection is worth — other than to say “it’s priceless to me.”
Typical appraisal techniques don’t apply because the highest values are assigned to new-in-the-box toys, a concept that flies in the face of everything he holds dear about toys.
“These toys have been played with,” he announced proudly. “Yes, there are some still in the box, but that’s only because I’d end up with multiple versions of them — you know, you’d have a birthday party and get one as a present that you already had — and I never got around to opening them.”
Barnhill and Rueff grew up in the pre-computer-game era. To amuse themselves, they relied on two things: their imaginations and their toys. They concocted elaborate fantasies that were enacted with the toys.
“I’m amazed how well these cleaned up,” Barnhill said of a set of toy soldiers that had seen their share of battle duty. “We used to bury these in my backyard. Years later, my parents were still digging them up when they’d go to plant their garden.”
Despite the prominence of monsters in the title and the exhibit’s opening right before Halloween, there was no intended connection between the two, said Lin Nelson-Mayson, the museum’s director.
“It’s just a coincidence,” she said of the timing for the show, which continues through Jan. 3. “We didn’t even realize it until we started to promote the opening and people said, ‘What a great Halloween show.’ ”
So, why are monsters given star billing? Because Barnhill likes them best.
“I’m not about the good guys,” he admitted. “I think they’re boring. They all look alike, but every villain has a different look.”
Clean-cut, all-American handsomeness doesn’t impress him. Ugly is what gets his attention.
“Look at these!” he said, leading the way to a display case of a half-dozen grotesque giant plastic insects manufactured in the early ’60s. “These are the Hamilton Invaders. They were only made for one year.” He paused to gaze at them reverentially before adding: “They were so ugly nobody would buy them.”
Rueff, of course, sees them in a different light. To him, the bugs, supposedly invaders from outer space, represent the scariness of the unknown, a common theme during the Cold War.
“Toys respond to the culture in which they are created,” he said. “Look at superheroes: What they are fighting for and against evolves as society evolves.”
Because the Goldstein Museum is part of the university’s College of Design, the exhibit also focuses on how toy manufacturing has changed over the decades, with an emphasis on how the development of new materials and techniques affects design. Consider, for example, the creation of movable parts.
“Articulation changed everything,” Rueff said. “We started out with lead soldiers, then we went to Gumby-era rubber and finally to G.I. Joes with a dozen points of articulation. A dozen! That was really big in those days. Now, we’ve got toy soldiers with 30 or 40 points of articulation. Their fingers even move.”
The exhibit isn’t arranged strictly by the toys’ timeline. Like many of their fellow nerds — both Barnhill and Rueff embrace that designation — they practice toy segregation. As a result, the section titled “Truth, Justice and the American Way” is distinctly separate from the one labeled “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.”
(Translation for the comic-book-averse: The first refers to the world of DC Comics — Superman, Batman and the Justice League — while the latter is a nod to the Marvel Comics universe, including Spider-Man, Ironman and the Avengers.)
Barnhill and Rueff have launched a website, SuperMonsterCity (supermonstercity.com) where, among other things, they sell postcards, posters and T-shirts of monsters. They’re also starting to get national recognition, often being invited to comic book conventions.
They always get a warm reception, they said. Or, at least, their collection of toys does.
“Everybody loves them,” Barnhill said. “How can you not?”