While I was at the Museum of Childhood to see the exhibition about Bagpuss and The Clangers, I took the opportunity to look around the museum as a whole. Though it is based in Bethnal Green, it is part of west London’s Victoria & Albert Museum: the building was opened as the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872 and in 1922, then-Head Curator Arthur Sabin decided to try and make it more child-friendly. The move was a popular one, and following this the Museum re-opened in 1974 as the Museum of Childhood. A refurbishment occurred in 2005-06 and the Museum continues to thrive.
The Museum is neither just for children nor solely for adults, but manages to successfully cater to both groups. Fun and educational events take place regularly for children, and adults can also get in on the act – for instance, there is a nostalgic children’s’ TV quiz taking place on the 21st of April. The Museum examines the history of childhood, which is interesting for people of all ages: adults can reminisce about their own childhoods, children can learn about how young people of the past occupied their time, and everyone can develop a greater understanding of the history of childhood as a concept.
The section devoted to the history of childhood was particularly interesting to me: it looked at how babies and young children were cared for from the sixteenth century onwards, with examples of clothing, cots and feeding equipment as well as toys. There was also a section on clothes, which showed how children went from wearing miniature versions of adult outfits to their own specially designed fashions.
There were special sections devoted to kinetic and electronic toys, and there were some cases devoted to particular themes, such as magic, with a 1950s magic set being displayed alongside Harry Potter merchandise from recent years. I enjoyed seeing some of the toys I used to play with myself, including Sylvanian Families and the original PlayStation. I have to admit I do feel rather old knowing that toys I played with as a child are now in a museum!
The Museum is currently showing a temporary exhibition called On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants. This is definitely aimed at adults rather than children as it explores the sensitive and distressing topic of the children who were sent to various British colonies from 1869-1970. These children were sent away with the promise of a better life, but for many this did not materialise, and several never saw their families again.
The Museum of Childhood is definitely worth a visit. It’s fascinating, and it’s free: though be warned, you may come out with a desire to relive your childhood.
Address: Cambridge Heath Road, London, E2 9PA
Opening Hours: 10-5.45 daily