MOORHEAD — Most people grow out of playing with toys, but David Barnhill takes pleasure in telling people he missed out on the whole growing up thing.

The 61-year-old Twin Cities man estimates he has about 200,000 toys, but friends believe it’s even more than that.

About 350 items from his collection make up "America’s Monsters, Superheroes and Villains: Our Culture at Play." The show opened earlier this month at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County in Moorhead's Hjemkomst Center and is on display through January.

Vintage tin space toys are displayed at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
Vintage tin space toys are displayed at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

The display is a survey of toys from about the 1960s through today. The oldest item is Mr. Mercury, a battery-operated, remote-controlled robot that walks, bends over and can lift small items.

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His collection, which is still growing, includes contemporary toys, like a Minecraft item and an action figure of Rey from the recent “Star Wars” movies.

Barnhill credits George Lucas’ film franchise with reinvigorating the toy market in the late 1970s.

“As a toy collector in the ’70s, cool toys, the monster and superhero guys kind of vanished,” Barnhill says. “The Vietnam War and Watergate and the rise of the antihero sort of put a kibosh on any kind of imaginative conflict. As a young man, I was thinking, 'These are all really boring.' Everything was touchy-feely, not very fun. There are no bad guys or good guys, just misunderstood guys. Then ‘Star Wars’ came along and resurrected good versus evil on an epic scale.”

Aurora model kits featuring DC's Superman and Batman are displayed at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
Aurora model kits featuring DC's Superman and Batman are displayed at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

Barnhill is serious about his toys and so is his friend since high school, Stephen Rueff, who curated the show. Rueff didn’t just select which pieces would get displayed — the Minneapolis College of Art and Design teacher organized it into three sections that look how toys reflected the sociopolitical climate of the time.

Barnhill started off playing cowboys and Indians, but then his interest leaned more toward monsters as he aged. This wasn’t just by happenstance. To Rueff, the rise in monsters and aliens were in step with the rising tensions of the Cold War and the fear of something out there, he explained at the shows opening earlier this month.

Another part of the show, “Innocent Monsters,” features individuals who were unwittingly transformed into strange creatures, which Rueff sees as a commentary on feelings of teen alienation and the rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“What an amazing arc of history told through toys,” Barnhill says excitedly.

The Mattel Incredible Edibles kit is displayed at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
The Mattel Incredible Edibles kit is displayed at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

That arc keeps growing. He points to the evolution of female action figures, from the curvy-scantily dressed characters of the past to more contemporary icons, like Rey, the latest “Star Wars” hero.

“It’s evolving in a good way,” he says. “I think the oversexualized action figures are going to start walking back. Barbie has taken a note from that playbook that not everyone is going to have these impossible bodies. If Barbie is doing it and action heroes are doing it, then it’s a more level playing field.”

He says there will be new female green plastic military figures, previously known as army men.

“There isn’t a blue or a pink aisle at Target anymore,” he says. “There are no girls' or boys' toys anymore. That should be a dead issue. That’s very exciting, inspiring and enlightening. It doubles the amount of cool toys that could be made to even more kids that just want to play with cool toys.”

While he shares Rueff’s academic view, he acknowledges that sometimes he just likes weird things.

Ed Roth's Rat Fink was popular with the muscle car culture in the 1960s. David Samson / The Forum
Ed Roth's Rat Fink was popular with the muscle car culture in the 1960s. David Samson / The Forum

“I have a soft spot for the toys that didn’t make it,” Barnhill says. “There are toys that someone had a great idea but it didn’t have a TV show or a movie or a video game and they put out this great looking toy and it’s in the clearance aisle. I still have a love for the lost toys, the unappreciated toys.”

Not everyone is looking at the show from an academic perspective. Markus Krueger, programming director for the HCSCC, has taken four very enthusiastic school groups through the show.

“Their eyes just bug out of their heads,” he says. “They just love it. They have so much fun at the exhibit. They love the old commercials and recognize the toys I grew up with and who all of the superheroes are. It’s a dream come true for these kids.”

It’s not just the kids who like it.

“Our custodian isn’t into every exhibit we get, but this one has G.I. Joes in it, so he’s spending a lot of time in that exhibit,” he adds.

The Hjemkomst Monster Ball will feature an appearance by local television favorite Madd Frank. David Samson / The Forum
The Hjemkomst Monster Ball will feature an appearance by local television favorite Madd Frank. David Samson / The Forum

Barnhill is just happy to share his passion with people. After the show ends at HCSCC, it will travel to St. Louis and later Seattle.

“These toys have been sitting in my life for a long time. I want to get them out and share them with the world,” Barnhill says. “It’s a multigenerational sharing adventure, which is what I like because grandparents, parents and grandkids can all go to the show and they all take something away and share their perspective on what it means to be a kid.”

Barnhill will be back at the HCSCC on Tuesday, Oct. 29, for The Hjemkomst Monster Ball, a party featuring horror films screened on the sail of the Hjemkomst Viking ship, music and local spooky movie host Madd Frank.

Barnhill will be dressed as a mad scientist, but no costume will cover his true identity as a toy enthusiast.

“I’ll talk to anyone who wants to talk toys,” he says.

If you go

What: "America's Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains: Our Culture at Play"

When: On display through Jan. 31

Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead

Info: https://www.hcscconline.org/

If you go

What: The Hjemkomst Monster Ball

When: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29

Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead

Info: Tickets are $20 or $50; https://www.hcscconline.org/