Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published December 23rd 2014
Neverland's not the Only Place to Remain a Child Forever
A simple minute's walk away from Bethnal Green tube station, the V&A Museum of Childhood is a place for all ages to learn, reminisce, and gaze in wonder. Founded in 1872, the museum is a bit of a recycled project, as it is was made through an amalgamation of different sources. The building's iron structure was pre-fabricated using material from the original Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, while the exterior was designed by James William Wild, who was inspired by the German architectural style called rundbogenstil or 'round arch style'. Inside, you will see a fish scale marble floor, made by the women of Woking Gaol.
To begin with, it was called the Bethnal Green Museum displayed a variety of things, such as food, animal products, and French art; it was not until the 1920s that the museum began to focus on children, bringing artwork down to a child's eye-line, and introductng children's educational activities. Finally, in 1974, the museum officially began specialising on the subject of childhood.
I love the open plan layout of the Museum of Childhood; there is no maze of rooms to navigate or no chronological order you need to follow. Simply go up to the first display cabinet that catches your eye, and start exploring.
The main hall is large open space consisting of a gift shop, information desk, and café. These places have nothing unique to offer, but fulfil their purpose. In the gift shop you can buy stationery, cards, books, and toys. Benugo Café provide a selection of handmade seasonal sandwiches, salads, and hot food made with organic and Fair Trade produce.
On either side of the hall are two elevated platforms, where all the displays can be visited. On there left, you'll find a space with tables and cupboards, where free daily children's activities take place. These include:
Monday Friday 2pm 2.30pm - Animal Magic sensory storytelling for under 5s 2.30pm 4pm Art Smarts arts and crafts session
Saturday and Sunday 10.30am 11am Animal Magic 11.15am 11.45 Explore object handling, demonstrations, and 'have a go' session
12pm 12.30pm Telling Tales interactive storytelling
2pm 4pm Art Smarts
Even when there are not activities taking place, children will have lots of fun exploring the museum because there are so many things to play with. From building blocks and board games to touch screens and kinetic inventions, the museum truly is a place of learning through play.
Some of the simplest inventions began as toys, but have now advanced to have universal appeal and functions. For example, the zoetrope is one of the earliest ways to view moving pictures, and a precursor to cinema.
The first display that caught my eye surprise, surprise was a cabinet full of sci-fi toys. Star Wars, Star Trek, robots, ray guns, etc. This was opposite a display on superheroes, showcasing the journey from comics to costumes and films to action figures.
Each cabinet looks at a different style of play, such as building, imaginative play, dress-up, video games, outdoor, etc. What's fascinating is to see how each style has changed over the centuries. You get to look at toys from the Victorian period, followed by every decade of the twentieth century, to modern toys today.
This is what makes the museum so great for family visits. Grandparents, parents, and children can all go together, and enjoy the visit, but each appreciate an entirely different experience. Children will gaze in wonder at how childhood used to be like, while adults can take a nostalgic look back at all the games they used to play. I have been to the museum on two occasions, and came away with a different perspective each time. I first went a few years ago with my mum, who told me stories about things she remembered having as a child, such as a scooter. I then recently went on my own, and found myself recognising all the toys I had. Likewise, I overheard many parents telling their kids 'see, that's what I played with when I was your age'.
The museum doesn't just look at the British childhood, but explores other cultures as well. For example, one display featured lots of wire toys handmade by children in Africa. Most were from the 1900s, and focussed on transport, because the children were inspired by their fathers, who drove vans and lorries.
It makes for an interesting contrast. Here in the Western world, children are spoilt by having all their toys made for them by big money-making business. Over the course of the last century, children have gone from making their own toys and inventing their own games, to being turned into lazy and unimaginative creatures who always need the latest gadget to keep them entertained. In poorer countries, children still have to rely on their own imagination.
Toys are not the only feature of the museum. After all, it is not called the Museum of Toys, but the Museum of Childhood, and therefore addresses all aspects of childhood, from playtime to family-time, from cradle to adulthood.
On the first floor, you can explore the home environment. If you were a baby in the nineteenth century, how would dinner, bath, and bedtime compare to a baby born today?
Earlier I said how today's children are spoilt with all the sorts of toys they can get, but that is nothing compared the gifts some rich father lavished upon their daughters. Of course, I am talking about dollhouses. Dollhouses today are a poor substitute to the magnificent craftsmanship of the Victorian era, but at the same time, these aesthetically stunning gifts made by parents can hardly be called toys. They are elaborate facsimiles of real homes, fragile, breakable, expensive, and really intended to groom girls into the role of housewife.
Some of the dollhouses were not made for children at all. One example is 'Mrs Bryant's Pleasure', which was commissioned by Ann Jaga Bryant when she was in her late fifties, to model her real life home.
Many toys, even today, form the basis of preparing children for adult life. Dolls are a chance for children to practice being parents, kitchen sets prepare them for cooking their own meals, and even things like an ironing board or mangle were made, making the future of tedious chores fun for a very brief period.
What I find most interesting about the section upstairs is the timeline of children's clothing. It starts with the eighteenth century, where outfits were formal, heavy, and pretty much small-size adult-wear. In the nineteenth century, dull drab clothes got brightened up with long lasting colour dyes. Children's clothing continued to evolve, but it was not until the mid 1960s that true change came, and they took on an individual style, separate from that of adults.
Veering away from childhood slightly, one of my favourite sections looks at theatre culture or more specifically, puppets. Puppets are both fun toys for kids, and a form of theatrical entertainment for all. There are many types of puppets, and you can discover them all: Shadow puppets, hand and finger puppets, and marionettes.
The Museum of Childhood is free to visit, and a wonderful place to take a family outing, as it gives you a chance to share stories, play games, and learn together.