‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’
George Bernard Shaw
Last week I took the car to get MOTed at the Kwik Fit on Bethnal Green Road. It takes about an hour so I took the opportunity to visit the Museum of Childhood for the first time. It was originally opened in 1872 to house exhibits from the Great Exhibition which were still on display post 1918. With the appointment of Arthur Sabin as head curator, the museum slowly started the slow process of becoming the Museum of Childhood. He made the exhibits more child friendly, set up a classroom, employed teachers and began to source child-related objects to exhibit. Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, joined him, donating many toys of her own. Over the years the exhibits relating to childhood became more and more popular until finally, in 1974, the museum was rebranded as the Museum Of Childhood.
Visiting the Museum is like a trip back in time – memories flooding back of toys I’d played with, memories and moments inspired by play. Ballerina Sindy (my sister’s, honest) and Action Man frequently got married, and were often involved in fashion shows! They didn’t have my Thunderbird 1 but they did have Thunderbird 3 and Tracey island. As a baby I had a Wendy Boston Golly stuffed toy whose waistcoat I chewed, and he appears in many pics of me in my pram. I was really surprised to see a Golly on display, and then impressed by the explanation of its history and context – the offensive stereotypes on which it was based and the fact that it was one of the most popular children’s characters of the 20th Century. Presenting the facts of our shared social history in a balanced and honest way to children was much more than I had expected, as was the depth of historical information and the variety of toys from all over the world.
In the entrance hall are two great shows – one of contemporary Indian Warli Painting and the other ‘Tales’ by the Spanish photographer Sonya Hurtado recreating the wonder of childhood through created images from fairy tales. Upstairs, a temporary exhibit explores the history of the boardgames from the oldest such as Backgammon and Go (approximately 5000 years and 2000 years old respectively) to modern favourites such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.
The paint may be peeling on the wonderful Victorian walls but the displays are fascinating and fresh. This is a hidden gem of a museum with the unique ability to take us back to more innocent times when imagination and play were king.
All text and images © Jonathan dredge (apart from the Warli Paintings and theSonya Hurtado Photographs).