When it comes to fond childhood memories, chances are they include days filled with Play-Doh, Barbie Dolls, and Hot Wheels. These toys have captured children’s imaginations for generations, but there might be one that has ’em all beat: Legos.
You can stack these colorful bricks to make just about anything — for better or worse. Recently, one so-called educational group debuted a line of Lego sets that severely departs from the usual models. They claim their intentions are pure, but some critics say these toys are just plain disturbing.
By design, toys aren’t very serious. They focus more on having fun than promoting education, especially when it comes to talking about the big issues. One organization, however, is trying to change all that.
The AV Club
Among the many cultural wonders in Vienna, the Bestattungsmuseum stands out as one of the most bizarre. This institution shines a light on a very peculiar subject, one which sends many tourists heading for the hills.
You see, the Bestattungsmuseum is a funeral museum. Its exhibits reflect on the many death rituals used throughout the years and demonstrate more obscure aspects of the process that most people may not realize.
The museum contains a ton of history, too, as it’s connected to a cemetery where esteemed figures like Ludwig Van Beethoven are buried. Of course, Bestattungsmuseum is looking toward the future too, and the staff has got some friends to help them out.
As a matter of fact, these two could be the most valuable members of the team. But what are Legos doing at a funeral museum, you ask? Well, when it comes to the circle of life, you have to consider the most undereducated segment of the population.
With the infinite combinations made possible by just a handful of bricks, Legos are likely the most versatile toy out there. They can transform into anything, with just a little bit of childhood imagination.
The good folks at Bestattungsmuseum realized that Legos could even help kids better understand strange and frightening concepts. So, in 2016, a small group started experimenting with custom Lego sets to explore death and burials.
They started off safe with a model from the past, perhaps to keep the first version from hitting too close to home. The museum built a miniature tram based off vehicles used to move bodies around the 1920s and ’30s.
From there, the project continued with another funerary vehicle, this time in the form of a retro hearse. After these pieces spent some time on display, the museum got some surprising responses.
According to Dr. Florian Keusch, spokesman for the Bestattungsmuseum, hordes of parents approached them with questions. Many were stumped about how to best set up a dialogue with grieving children, but there was something to these Legos.
Whereas real funerals and burials came off as scary and alien to kids, Lego models didn’t threaten them at all. Florian took the feedback to heart and chose to expand the Lego project.
The museum staff, confident as ever, went all out with their next batch of Lego sets. They constructed a dynamic burial set with a coffin that could be moved in and out of a grave. From there, the creators addressed the even more taboo sides of dying.
Though it was a gamble, Bestattungsmuseum released sets that featured both living and dead figurines. Controversially, these characters appeared to be members of the same family. But the museum felt it was responsible for not sugarcoating death — at all.
Their boldest Lego configuration has to be a crematorium, complete with a rather disgruntled-looking undertaker holding an urn. Florian admitted that not everyone is on board with their unconventional mission.
“0.00001 percent of people were disgusted because they have only read the headline ‘LEGO crematoria’ and didn’t get the intentions behind these products,” Florian explained. Most people, on the other hand, supported the kid-friendly project.
The museum isn’t diving into these matters without consulting the experts either. They partnered with the Viennese Association of Psychotherapists to ensure their Legos actually help teach children. Recently, an unintended audience also picked up on it.
Once the online community caught wind of the experiment, orders for the funerary Legos boomed. Though many sets cost close to €100, collectors couldn’t get enough of the wholly unique models.
Nevertheless, the Bestattungsmuseum intends to keep the focus on erasing stigmas, and not driving up shock-value profits. Now that they have an array of sets under their belts, they feel they can really tell a full story.
When it comes down to it, the museum knows it’s best to be prepared for the hard facts of life. Thanks to Legos, maybe kids and adults alike can even have a little fun while coming to grips with mortality.
Only time will tell whether these models ever catch on beyond the Bestattungsmuseum. But at least Florian and his colleagues can rest easy knowing they made life a little less frightening.
After all, sometimes the scariest looking toys have the most power. That’s why the people of a quiet Sydney, Australia, shop dedicate their lives to a one-of-a-kind mission the Bestattungsmuseum could be proud of.
If you glanced through the window of this shop, you would be forgiven for mistaking the experts inside for doctors. Their work does resemble surgery. They even think of themselves as medical professionals, in a sense. That’s probably how they came up with their business name.
Meet the hard workers behind the Original Doll Hospital. This unusual establishment has served the greater Sydney area for over 100 years now. Of course, a specialized business like this doesn’t just pop up for no good reason.
Back in 1913, an Australian general store owner named Mr. Chapman imported Japanese dolls, which were popular at the time. However, the fragile figurines often cracked and broke during the voyage. Chapman couldn’t make any profit off of damaged goods.
So he turned to his brother, Harold Chapman, for some assistance. A local handyman, Harold had a knack for fixing up just about anything. With his vast array of tools and close attention to detail, he began repairing his brother’s broken dolls.
As more and more Sydneysiders learned of Harold’s skill, he opened up his own repair business in the back of the general store. While he patched up all manner of household goods, toys became his specialty.
Following the end of the Second World War, Australia lifted its importing restrictions and Harold found himself flooded with more business than he could handle. It was a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
With his clientele base growing, Harold needed more hands on deck. He passed along the shop to his son, Harold Jr., who understood they needed more space for their large inventory. He relocated the store to its current location.
All these years later, the Original Doll Hospital remains a family business. Geoff Chapman, the grandson of the elder Harold, acts as the owner and “surgeon-in-chief.” Even in his 70s, he takes playing with toys quite seriously. But how has he been at it for so long?
It’s hard to believe how a doll hospital could survive in the age of online shopping, but to put it simply, they are good at what they do. Few other establishments in Australia, or the world, can mend precious items with such surgical precision.
Plus, they deal in saving highly personal and sentimental possessions. Most are one of a kind. Geoff says it’s not unusual to see a customer burst into tears once they see a previously damaged item restored to mint condition.
And make no mistake: this is hard work. Each member of Geoff’s team is a trained professional, and any slip-ups could result in an irreversible mistake. They might not be M.D.s, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take their job seriously. The hospital comparisons don’t end there either.
The front of the store even presents itself as a type of hospital, with separate areas dedicated to different types of repairs. Whatever the “patient”‘ may be, they will find a place to treat it.
Naturally, any doll hospital worth its salt has a ward for vintage dollhouses. These masterpieces are among the most detailed items on the antique market, so they require extra care. After all, the most coveted dollhouses sell in the millions!
But the Hospital doesn’t shy away from more ordinary items. Many teddy bears, often the most loved and run-down personal items, come through to get re-stuffed or to get a torn limb reattached.
Of course, the doll remains the true mainstay of Geoff’s Chapman’s business. No two are alike, so employees always have to stay on their toes. Some parts of the repair process are especially challenging.
According to employee Kerry Stuart, “The thing I like least is eyes. It’s a very difficult balancing act to get them right, so it does take a while. Sometimes I have to do them three times before I’m happy with them.”
Because dolls come in every shape and size imaginable, the shop has to keep a vast array of spare parts in stock. The tinkerers in the back are always linking up different limbs, torsos, and heads. But as much as the workers are like doctors, they are also artists.
They know the details are what really makes a doll precious. Many of their orders are to replace a toy’s hair or touch up its color. Emotionally speaking, these little things really connect a person to their childhood mementos.
Work at the Original Doll Hospital is far from typical, but the employees certainly take great pleasure in it — and so do their customers. At this hospital, everybody leaves smiling, whether the smiles are genuine or just painted on.
Baltimore Sun / Jerry Jackson