Last Saturday Heather and I went in search of a long lost youth with a trip to the Museum of Childhood over at Bethnal Green. As well as sounding like an interesting place to go (it is), and as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum free, we were specifically headed for an exhibition on The Alice Look, examining the changing look of Alice (of Alice in Wonderland fame) in popular culture. That was laid out in the entrance hall but first, there were toys!
The museum is arranged a little strangely, a long, open central area with reception, shop and cafe with what amount to double tiered open wing down each side. The Wikipedia page on the museum claims the iron structure is reused from the original V&A site but the museum’s history page doesn’t quite imply that1. Either way the curving iron frame looping overhead does at least add interest.
Within in each gallery wing display cases hold the items of childhood. It’s a shame to find so much behind glass but the fragile nature of such things makes it inevitable (more touchable recreations might have been nice for children though). The lighting within and around the cases could be better in places too.
The displays are themed to some extent, though it is at times difficult to tell quite what the theme was supposed to be. We started with some traditional rocking horses, alongside trikes, bikes and other such things. Then there were some early toys, charming in their simple wooden simplicity. Particular striking were the wooden trains (the NE1 painted on the side of one made me wonder of a north-east connection), shown near more model examples of model trains with a fine example fo the Mallard.
Displays then veered into the more modern, with a giant Robbie the Robot and camera equipment (are early cameras really toys?) as well as other optical tricks such as kaleidoscope (sadly unavailable to look through) and zoetropes (which at least had a modern recreation to play with). The more modern theme continued with computers. It was nice to see an Amstrad CPC (the collection of games—on cassette tape—they had displayed for it was poor though, only really Dizzy standing out). Early consoles also made an appearance, the NES and first generation of Playstation in particular bringing back memories. There was also a very modern XBox bringing things up to date.
Any impression of a journey through the history of toys is quickly lost though as we found ourselves confronted with puppets, most of which were too scary to illicit anything but shock and horror. The next section was more interesting, bringing forth a flood of childhood recollections. First there was a Fisher Price Village which forms one of my earliest memories of playing. I had to refrain from screaming aloud “Mr Policeman, Mr Policeman, doggie’s eating the carpet.” Not so directly memorable was the display of objects produced by the Britains toy firm (including a little policebox which would have sat wonderfully with the later collection of Doctor Who themed toys but was produced well before that programme existed) but did put me in mind of the space series they produced much later that formed an integral part of my childhood (I’ve just lost far too much time Googling about that). Heather found her own childhood in the collection of Sindy dolls.
There were of course a variety of teddy bears, one sat in a chair who I accidentally told a random person looked comfortable because Heather had wandered away. I wanted to reach in and cuddle Playschool’s Jemima even if it isn’t the original (which resides in Bradford). It’s not difficult to think that today shops would be awash with replicas and every conceivable themed item based on the Playschool toys but I don’t remember that happening back in my childhood—perhaps I just wasn’t aware.
Talking of themed toys, Star Wars made an inevitable appearance (it was after all the film that pretty much kicked off the concept of linked merchandising). They didn’t have the one item all schoolboys wanted back then though, the Millennium Falcon. I never really had much in the way of Star Wars toys anyway; Action Man on the other hand was my thing. I had quite a few vehicles and a very wide range of outfits (mostly knitted by my ever patient mother). Of course, not all the figures were real Action Men, some where the cheaper, more plastic knock-offs which didn’t have as much movement. I did have an eagle eyes though.
Moving on from childhood war games (though my Action Man was as likely to play football or cricket) brought construction toys, including Stickle Bricks! I don’t think I ever had any Stickle Bricks of my own but I do remember them being in reception class of school and loving them. And Lego, the best toy of all, of course. Here it was represented by both the annoying tie-ins of today (Harry Potter) and the more traditional here’s a bunch of bricks and imagination approach.
Upstairs on the second level of galleries things seemed less interesting. There was a display of large doll houses which took up most of one side and seemed over the top. A few interesting games were scattered around (Mastermind, Subutteo, a variety of children’s card games) but we skipped completely the exhibition on migrant children and headed back down the rabbit hole to Alice.
The display against one wall opposite the shop was interesting but disappointingly small. Alice’s appearance has undoubtedly both influenced, and been influenced by, the culture in which it finds itself. It’s a shame the exhibition didn’t contain more examples than a handful of the early, original illustrations, a single advertisement and a couple of dresses (plus a few translations of the books from around the world, with everything from a “traditional” Alice to a traditionally dressed African version). Perhaps they were restricted by space but there were long stretches of empty table as if they were perhaps expecting more themselves.
We were hungry by now so attempted to go to the cafe but, despite it not being that near closing time for the museum, the cafe seemed to be pretty much packed up, offering nothing but cake. Oh well, one must eat cake. The little shop was indeed little, and a bit lacking in actual toys if you ask me.
Afterwards we called into the Dundee Arms, which seems way overly hipster, before trying to go to the rather special to us Shakespeares Head in Holborn. Unfortunately that was so packed we could barely see a table never mind find one to sit at so after a couple of circuits we gave up and headed instead to find our way home. On the way we had the idea to stop off at The Minories next to Tower Gateway DLR. It did have room, and proved quite a good choice for an enjoyable dinner beneath the arches.
Heading home we sat at the front of the DLR (it has no driver!) which was fun. Why do they have so much lighting through the tunnels though?
- Apparently the guide book says it was moved ↩
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