Paul Jones has visited the Museum of Science and Industry so often over the past four decades to service the Mold-A-Rama machines scattered around the institution that he can walk around blindfolded.
There is the gray underwater mold near the entrance to the U-505 exhibit, the yellow chick mold in front of the hatchery, the green tractor near the farm exhibit, the steam engine black near the train exhibit and even a red Chicago skyline near the silver elevator.
Visitors love to spend a few bucks to take home a hot and fresh souvenir of the machine, a memento from classic MSI exhibits.
Jones, who grew up in Brookfield and operates Mold-A-Rama from the company’s headquarters on 31st Street, never thought his machines and colorful plastic models would make a museum exhibit on their own. .
But on Nov. 2, the Museum of Science and Industry activated its brand new exhibit celebrating Brookfield-based Mold-A-Rama, featuring more than 150 models – many of which have likely never been seen before.
The exhibit also offers insight into the making of the models and there are four Mold-A-Rama machines from which you can take home a souvenir – a silver robot, created especially for the Robot Revolution exhibit at MSI in 2007; a green monorail originally made for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle; a blue ship HMS Bounty, designed to coincide with the release of the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando; and a white angel designed to be a Christmas tree ornament.
The exhibit is located on the lower level of the east galleries in the space that once housed the circus exhibit. It will be on display and included in the regular museum admission price until at least fall 2023.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Jones, who started working alongside his father, William, servicing machinery when he was 13 and now runs the operation. “I grew up going to museums and going to all the exhibitions. It was never a goal to become an exhibition, it just turned into something that could be an exhibition.
Jones said MSI approached him about a possible exhibit at least a decade ago, but he balked at the concept, which was to bring all 60 of his company’s vintage machines together in one location.
“Part of the marketing plan [for Mold-A-Rama] is that we are the first booth outside an exhibition. That way people start collecting them,” Jones said. “If you put them all together, the most common thing would be someone picking just one. We want you to buy them all.
But over the past five or six months, Jones has worked with museum staff to put together the Mold-A-Rama exhibit, which includes four mold-producing machines for purchase. Five other machines are near other exhibits in the museum.
“I went down there [to service machines] since I was 16 and there are people I’ve gotten to know for 30, 40 years,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of family pride there.”
As it just opened on November 3, when the museum announced the Mold-A-Rama exhibit, it generated a ton of discussion on social media. Within two days, an MSI Facebook post about the exhibit generated more than 1,300 likes, with hundreds of comments and shares.
“People on our Facebook post are talking about going to Chicago to see it,” said Peter Vega, deputy director of communications and engagement for the Museum of Science and Industry. “People are really excited about this stuff.”
The museum, which has been in the midst of an exhibit refresh since new CEO Chevy Humphrey took over in 2021, reached out to Mold-A-Rama about the new exhibit. Not only does Mold-A-Rama have a long-standing relationship with the museum, but its machines are a snapshot of mid-20th century manufacturing innovation and the models are iconic collectibles.
“We knew we would get a lot of feedback from the public about nostalgia for what these objects mean to people,” Vega said. “And we wanted to share some of the history that is unknown about how it happened.”
The machines first came to public attention at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, whose monorail was the subject of a popular Mold-A-Rama model, which the new expo makes available at the purchase.
“We imagine people coming in are going to be excited because he hasn’t been out in a while, and not in Chicago at all,” Vega said.
Although not available for purchase – and never will be because the original mold has cracked – a very rare Mold-A-Rama model on display is the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle, based on the beloved exhibit at MSI.
The incredibly detailed replica of the silent film star’s oversized dollhouse was something of a “black eye” for Mold-A-Rama, Jones said. The bulky model tended to break when the machine pulled it out of the mould. Mold-A-Rama abandoned the mold after only a few years, making the surviving fairy castles highly collectable.
Of course, there’s also a photo booth at the exhibit where visitors can pose with their Mold-A-Rama models and share the photos on social media.
For more information, visit msichicago.org/explore/whats-here/exhibits/mold-a-rama.