Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

This museum is – in my experience – unique, in that it is both about childhood and for people who are still going through it. It therefore has collections of games, dolls, clothes and the paraphernalia needed to care for children, as any adult museum on a specialist subject would have, but it also has play areas and explanations of exhibits designed to interest and involve children. It makes for an interesting mix.

The name had discouraged me from visiting. The thought of trekking out to Bethnal Green and having to wander round in a part of London I did not know in order to find the place had been subliminally off-putting. But the Museum is within a couple of hundred yards of the Central Line tube station, next station along from Liverpool Street. You walk past a little park, and there it is, as easy to reach as any of London’s great museums.

The Place

The building itself is extraordinary. After going through the entrance hall, the main part is a single spacious hall with massive round arches, and with galleries on three sides, displaying the best of Victorian engineering and design, giving a message of self-assuredness and reliability, combined with lightness and welcoming into an important space.

On first impressions I thought it must have been a redundant market or perhaps a small railway station. I was quite wrong. It was first built as the original Victoria and Albert Museum, but became redundant when the current building was put up. The V&A wanted to encourage culture throughout London and offered to set up offshoot museums in the four quarters of London. Only Bethnal Green responded, as so they got the Museum of Childhood, and it has been on its present site since 1866.

The Collection

The collection is impressive. Whatever your age, you will find the toys and games you played with as a child, the clothes you wore, the prams or pushchairs you were wheeled round in and probably the bibs and potties which you used. The oldest exhibit is an Egyptian paddle doll (so-called because of its shape) dating back to 1300 BC and there are items from the twenty-first century such as Lord of the Rings film memorabilia.

There is King Charles I’s rocking horse and, because the original now looks rather mangy, a recent reproduction to show not only what it would have looked like but also built using the tools and techniques available in 1610. While talking of rocking horses, there was one built in the late nineteenth century at the London Orphanage in Regents Park, to a design very similar to the one I bought in the late 1960s made by the young offenders at Aycliffe Classifying School.

There are puppets, teddy bears of all ages, construction toys such as Minibrix and Meccano, a superb collection of dolls’ houses, automata, and case after case of other items. And in and out of the cases play areas are sited, being well used by little children when I was there.

I had the impression that the Museum was favoured by au pairs and nannies looking for somewhere to take their charges that was cheap (entry is free) and kept them busy, while there is a chance for a snack too in the café in the centre of the hall.

There seemed to be some strange omissions. Why was there no comprehensive library of children’s books, for example? The shop was strangely sparse, too, in view of the way that cathedrals, country houses and museums generally seem to have small departments stores which have to be negotiated in order to get out.

Why a Visit is a Must

It is a fascinating place, which deserves to be visited more. A visit should be compulsory for every child care professional. Why? Obviously there is the personal interest as one goes round the showcases exclaiming to oneself, “I had one of those”, but more importantly, the objects on display reveal the changing attitudes of society to children.

Why, for example, were dolls almost all babies, until Barbie and Action Man came along? Was playing seen only as a preparation for adult life, e.g. parenting babies? And did the introduction of adult dolls signify a shift? Were Barbie and Action Man really to be seen as role of models?

To judge by the exhibits, there was the massive growth in the range of toys following the invention of plastics, with the turning point being the 1950s-1960s. Toys were relatively rare and treasured previously. Some, such as rag dolls, were in daily use, but others such as the exquisite dolls’ houses were only to be brought out on special occasions, with injunctions that nothing was to be broken – and tears if there were breakages.  But now the consumer society sees plastic toys as expendable, to be sent to the charity shops or thrown out when the battery runs down or some electronic part fails. What message do we want to give children about caring for things, for the way we use resources, or for the value we attach to material items?

Child care professionals need to continually rethink the ways we bring up children – the balance between preparing them to be adults and the enjoyment of childhood itself, for example, or the ways in which we can foster curiosity, inventiveness and imagination, or the best games and activities to help children socialise and learn to relate well to others.

My message in brief is that a short trip on the Central Line to a free museum with a fascinating range of materials is excellent value.

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