Museum #15 V&A Museum of Childhood

Housed in a beautiful old building that borrowed materials from ‘Albertopolis’ is the V&A Museum of Childhood.

Outside it looks quite normal.

Inside, it looks magnificent.

The first thing we did was look through the moving toy section.

First stop – the automatons. Self operating, mechanical toys with the ability to perform complex movements.
Some of these expensive automata were actually build for wealthy adults to impress and entertain their friends.

We saw some fantastic toy cars too.

I love the styling on this one. Like an old Roller or Morgan.

And I love the sheer size of this one – that’s one spoilt child!

The walls and curtains at the museum were covered with quotes about play.
Sigmund Freud’s words stuck out to me: “There is little that gives children greater pleasure than when a grown up lets himself down to their level… and plays with them as an equal.”

I was amazed to read that children in the late 1880s were allowed to play with real steam engines, made of brass. The escaping steam would have even made the classic ‘choo choo’ sound.

But real steam engines are positively safe, when compared to spirit burning boats (or putt putt boats.)

I’d stopped to have a look at the model railway for quite a while, along with a number of other people, when Wist popped over. I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted when she told me that she could see me getting into making that kind of thing.
The most worrying thing is that I’d been thinking the same thing before she came over. Uh oh.
In the model maker’s defence – it’s stunningly detailed.

Next up were optical toys.

I loved this telescopic view of the Crystal palace at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

I also thought these toy panoramas were interesting.

An extended version of that was the Juvenile Myriorama (or Panaramacopia) from 1820-30.
These are a set of cards, printed in the UK, showing isolated elements of scenery. You can place different cards next to each other and create new landscapes, as each card fits anywhere in the sequence.

Nice to see young professionals starting so early.

Holly Hobbie – great name, awful gender reinforcement…

If ever you need a strawman argument, just annoy this guy…

Interestingly, he was also known as shock-headed Peter.

In 1952, Mr Potato Head launched. Somewhat correctly, the toy box only contained the parts and parents had to provide the potato. Eight years later, a hard plastic potato body was introduced, replacing the need for a real potato. Nothing quite beats an actual potato though.

In 1975, someone somewhere decided that kids needed a more versatile face to play with.
Perhaps Potato head just couldn’t show the breadth of emotion with all of his accessories.
Introducing… Hugo, Man of a Thousand faces.

Action man (launched in 1966 as a British version of GI Joe) has seen a number of jobs, due to public attitudes to war – including space ranger and ‘peaceful adventurer’.

This ‘puzzle cabinet’ from the 1760s used to belong to Royal Governess Charlotte Finch. The puzzles housed in its drawers were used to teach geography to princes and princesses. The maps in the cabinet chart the entire globe. The Royal children would rule a country with an international empire and learn about trade flowing around the globe.

From one cabinet to another. This time, Hamley’s Cabinet of Magic!

These holiday postcards from Gt Yarmouth and Whitstable were pretty kitsch.

Perhaps my favourite two exhibits were nearest the exit – the confiscation cabinets, and ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’

The confiscation cabinets is a fantastic project by teacher Guy Tarrant. He collected all of the items confiscated from children at schools over three decades. In his words, it evidences the everyday actions of school students. The objects in the cabinets highlight mischevious and distracted behaviour played out in the controlled school setting where children spend the majority of their young lives.

They’re hugely interesting – ranging from the depressing to the distressing.

The second exhibition near the exit was called ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ – an exploration of ‘design at the chalkface.’

It’s been commissioned in response to what the current government sees as a ‘decade of wasteful extravagance in educational architecture.’ The exhibit draws heavily upon a new study by Salford University that states ‘well designed classrooms can improve the academic performance of primary school children by up to 25%.’

The study hypothesises that there are three principles that would most affect a pupil’s brain function.
These were:
1) How natural it felt to be in the room
2) The extent to which the room felt individual to its occupants
3) Whether it stimulated them

The most significant factors for school design are therefore: circulation through the school, colour, simplicity of design, good light levels, natural light, flexibility, ownership, familiarity of classroom and good ventilation.

This isn’t a new argument.

In the first half of the 20th century, many European inventors were tasked with developing a new school desk. Jacob Happel even wrote of ‘the pernicious consequences of unadapted school desks on the physical, mental and spiritual development of a child.’
However, all of these early models with adjustable seats, worktop heights, flexible backs, footrests and arms were rejected as too complex, expensive and inconvenient and soon gave way to the mass production of more basic models.

The exhibit also displayed new layouts from children at Gayhurst Primary school – who had been briefed to design their ideal classroom. Most of the ideas allowed for more physical activity, computers and fresh air.

This futuristic looking classroom layout was designed by a 6 year old at the Wood School in Manchester. The furniture has been created from sawn branches.
Whilst we were there, there were loads of people that wanted to climb into it, play in it, sit in it.
I’m not sure you could say the same about a grimey old terrapin hut around the back of the assembly hall…

The V&A Museum of Childhood is a great day out – worth a visit to Bethnal Green if you have a spare afternoon.

#1. In 1840 confectioner Tom Smith introduced to Britain the bon-bon – a sugared almond wrapped in paper. In 1847, inspired by a crackling log in his fireplace, Tom hit upon the idea of making his bon bon snap. With this new noise, the bon bon evolved and became the christmas cracker.

#2. The circus trapeze was invented by a performer called Jules Leotard. The tight costume that he wore was subsequently named after him.

#3. The first electric toy car was invented in the USA in 1899. A quick turnaround to miniature form, when you consider the first car was invented in 1886.

#4. Tamagotchi roughly translates as ‘Egg Watch’

#5. The 1978 release of Space Invaders in Japan was so popular, it was responsible for a nationwide coin shortage.

1. Cartoon Museum
2. Churchill War Rooms
3. Cinema Museum
4. Dennis Sever’s House 
5. Dr Johnson’s house
6. Design Museum 
7. Down House 
8. The Geffrye Museum
9. London Film Museum 
10. London Transport Museum
11. Mansion House 
12. Brunel Museum 
13. Museum of the Order of St John 
14. Musical Museum 
15. Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret
16. Pollock’s Toy Museum 
17. Rose Theatre exhibition 
18. Fashion and Textile Museum 
19. Royal College of Music Archives and Museum of Instruments 
20. Sherlock Holmes Museum 
21. Twinings Museum
22. V&A Museum of Childhood 
23. Bank of England museum
24. The Stephens Museum 
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