The Museum of Childhood is a wonderful place for the young and young-at-heart alike: here, you can pore over a vast gallery of toys through the ages and discover darling egg-laying clockwork chickens, charming "magic lanterns" and beautifully hand-crafted puppet theatres. No doubt, grown-up visitors will find themselves, like I did, excitedly recognising the treasures of their childhood collections. When was the last time I saw a Tamagotchi, a Polly Pocket, or a Furby? And here, I rediscovered my long-lost obsession with hologram stickers, and became suddenly inspired to build an elaborate doll's house for my nonexistent daughter.
The massive toy gallery is grouped by type – moving parts, robotics, images and lenses, for example – and aspects of their mysterious and magical inner workings are explained with diagrams of clockwork mice and helpful questions and activities for the young ones. The development of toys as they grow ever sophisticated from simple wooden pull-along ducks to robotic dinosaurs is a wonderful story – not least because with every object, you imagine yourself a child again, thinking how much fun each object would be to play with. It's hard to believe that kids in the 1950s and 1960s wouldn't get bored of their little plastic "televisions" with their accompanying collections of a mere three cartoon film strips – but then again, it's even harder to imagine children in the 18th and 19th centuries sitting around a "magic lantern" (basically a simple gas-powered projector) completely enraptured by the charms of a colourful scene on their sitting room wall. How times have changed, these now-motionless toys seem to say.
For young visitors, it's a shame to see all of this great stuff on shelves and behind glass: they're practically crying out to be played with, but, I suppose, they must be kept nice for everyone to enjoy, and they remain resolutely mint-in-box. As you'd expect, however, the museum does make many efforts to be interactive and kid-friendly, with play areas and electronic displays. Spinning the zoetropes and praxinoscopes (those proto-film wheels that give the illusion of a short animated sequence) was good fun; but a giant robot that supposedly comes to life when you correctly arrange some magnetic cogs was, sadly, beyond my grasp – neither I nor several eight-year-olds could manage to get him going.
If you make it past all of the toys on the first level, the upper floor shifts its focus away from toys to games and doll's houses, with an all-too-brief look at clothing and the accoutrements of babyhood. The current temporary exhibition, Modern British Childhood, attempts a more holistic look at childhood: the issues surrounding it and how the concept has changed over the years. This is what the museum needs more of – a broader view of the politics and social issues that affect young people in the UK and around the world. There are reams and reams of charming toys, but few references to television, culture or activities, and I don't believe I saw a single book on display. One other minor point was that some of the panel text is rather irrelevant and insipid, with platitudes such as "People are inspired by many things" and less-than-insightful comments on the nature of childhood ("Children like to imagine"). Still, for a dose of nostalgia, and for some truly unusual and playful trinkets, the Museum of Childhood makes for a lovely afternoon – with or without young ones in tow.
Welcoming over 400,000 visitors through its doors every year, the V&A Museum of Childhood in London's Bethnal Green houses the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection of childhood-related objects and artefacts, spanning the 1600s to the present day.
The collection includes toys - including dolls, dolls' houses, puppets and teddy bears - games, childcare, clothing, furniture and art and photography. In addition, the Museum runs a dynamic programme of temporary exhibitions and displays, a wide variety of activities, events and workshops for adults and families, outreach projects in hospitals and the local community, and an award-winning programme for schools.
The Museum aims to encourage everyone to explore the themes of childhood past and present, and to develop an appreciation of creative design through our inspirational collections and varied public programme.
V&A Museum of ChildhoodCambridge Heath Road
London Greater London United Kingdom E2 9PA
Tel: +44 (0)20 8983 5200
10:00-17:45 (last admission 17:30)
Closed 24-26 Dec and 1-Jan