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The craze for collecting toy soldiers began with the French in the 18th century. In this scene, British foot soldiers attack a French officer. (Derek Workman)

The Great Battles of History, in Miniature

At a museum in Valencia, Spain, over one million toy soldiers stand at attention, prepared to reenact the wars that shaped the world

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We leave the museum proper and enter the netherworld of storerooms that house the models that will one day fill the rooms of the palacio. Thousands upon thousands of boxes are piled in corridors, squirreled away under the building’s eaves, stacked on shelves and scattered across the floor. But despite the seeming disorder, almost every item is cataloged, and the curatorial staff knows exactly where everything is, be it a hussar from the Napoleonic period or an 1800s-era skiff for a leisurely sail on the Nile.

Each year the museum mounts a major exhibition based on a particular theme. “When we begin planning the exhibition, which usually takes about a year to put together, we look at what models we have and what is either in the public eye at the moment or is a significant historical event coming up,” say Noguera. “For 2011 we decided on ‘55 Days at Peking,’ based partly on the 1963 film of that name, but also because of the current interest in China as a major political and economic force.” (The 2012 theme, on view through June 2012, covers the Napoleonic Wars)

In 1901, the Righteous Fists of Harmony, better known as the Boxers, laid siege to the Legation District of Peking, the area in which all foreign nationals lived. They were incensed by the excesses of the foreign powers that controlled the city. For 55 days the Chinese government vacillated between killing the foreigners or seeking reconciliation. The equivocation cost the government dearly, when an alliance of the eight foreign nations with citizens held hostage in the Legation District sent 20,000 armed troops to Peking, defeated the Imperial Army and recaptured the city.

“This was the last colonial war in China,” says Noguera. It was the “Awakening of the giant, when China saw for herself that she could be a powerful nation, which we see much more so today. It resonates with the moment we are all living through.”

Noguera and his staff search the archives for pieces they will use. Some are in perfect condition, some will need restoration, and some will be bare metal needing complete repainting. The work is meticulous, with model makers and designers slowly bringing the exhibition to life, scrupulously making sure every last detail about the rebellion is accurate.

By the end of the 1990s the largest manufacturer of miniatures in the world was Spanish producer, Alymer, but this isn’t as voluminous as it sounds, as they only had fifteen employees. Most ‘factories’ were mom and pop affairs, one person doing the sculpting, the other the painting, and only male figures were produced. By this time the Noguera family were buying around 50 percent of the world’s production of toy soldiers and miniatures, including almost everything Alymer produced, and were having difficulty creating the dioramas they needed because of lack of female models.

“It would have been a bit difficult to create a diorama of the Rape of the Sabine women or a Roman bacchanalia before that,” says Noguera with a smile. “So we started the company Facan to make female miniatures, and also trees, park benches, houses and all the paraphernalia we needed that we couldn’t get elsewhere.”

“When most people look at a display in a museum such as ours they often forget that a lot of what they see wasn’t originally made simply as collectors items, they were toys,” says Noguera. “Some of the French soldiers used in the display were made by Lucotte in 1902, a year after the Boxer Rebellion, simply as toys for kids to play with.”

L’Iber, Museo de los Soldaditos de Plomo, Calle Caballeros 20-2, Valencia.

About Derek Workman

Derek Workman is an English journalist living in Valencia who “delights in searching out the weird, the wonderful and the idiosyncratic, which Spain has by the bucketful.” He blogs at Spain Uncovered.

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