Friday, 6 November 2015

Museum of Childhood

Cambridge Heath Rd, London E2 9PA
Thursday  November 4th 2015

This museum is an offshoot of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who, clearly  tired of storing  roomfuls of dolls houses,  moved them out here in 1974, when Roy Strong was still Director. The building had a makeover in 2006 and arguably it was the fabric that appealed to us most – Mary hazarded that it might have been a market with its wooden and marble floors,  wrought iron mezzanine gallery and barrel shaped roof.  Linda said it reminded her of an old fashioned department store or even GUM - the pride of Moscow (even when empty in Iron Curtain days – this image is from their website )

We were both wrong – it is in fact a purpose built museum, originally intended for South Kensington  but re-routed to give the people of Bethnal Green something of their own.

The lower ground floor is entirely given over to café and shop while the mezzanine and upper gallery are filled with innumerable identical glass cases in somewhat random order. The toys feel very locked away and there is no supporting displays to show how they were played with, by what age children or how some of the mechanical toys worked. It all looks very dated and in our view it is not a great destination for children – there are limited play areas (you would do as well in your local park or playgroup) with a sand tray and table of Lego. Presumably the booked parties and events offer a better experience for the younger visitors. The main body of the Museum was fairly deserted today except for the special exhibition which we greatly enjoyed, would certainly recommend and which was really well presented.

The exhibition tackles the theme of child migrants, that is the non-voluntary sending of unaccompanied children to ‘the Colonies’ mainly Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The policy is well explained and documented, and operated for a hundred years between 1869 and 1970. The UK children were sometimes orphans and already in institutions but more frequently their mothers had relinquished care because of poverty but nevertheless maintained contact with the children. The government thinking was that they would have a ‘better life’ overseas but in reality they were exporting poverty and the poor, minimising the cost of supporting families on welfare in the UK and helping the colonies expand their own population with 'white people' as per the policy. 

  The charities who ‘collected’ the children in the UK felt that the children’s opportunities might be increased by being away from the deprivation of the slums and in the fresh air… however, as the exhibition so clearly demonstrates the reality was very far from  this. On arrival in Australia most of the children were placed in large and ultimately abusive institutions (mainly church run it has to be said) and were expected to do heavy manual labour but without being taught real crafts. But the ultimate cruelty was the separation from family with really no chance, except for some of the later migrants, of any re-unification. The individual stories and the outcomes for the children are presented on large panels while the walls have posters, artefacts and some live interviews with ‘migrant survivors’ – there are also films of  groups of children being served 5 course meals on the cruise ships taking them to their destinations, probably the most positive memory many of them had.

Not until the pioneering and revealing work carried out by social worker Margaret Humphreys and the later establishment of the Child Migrant Trust in 1987 did many of these shameful truths come to light and some compensation offered.  The exhibition also informs that some similar policies were in operation within the United States where ‘surplus’ children from the poor of the East coast cities were sent out west to ‘help’ on remote farmlands with heartbreaking stories of families being split up.
Somewhat emotionally drained we headed out into the main body of the Museum – admittedly the special exhibition was presented as not suitable for children under a certain age but by the time we had finished with the endless identical glass containers we wondered what appeal there was in much of the substantive collection other than as a nostalgia outing for middle aged and beyond?
Each case seems to have a theme though at times difficult to see what, and the text is not at child height (We presume they are meant for children as they say things like ‘A wheel is a circular device that turns round an axle that passes through its centre which makes it possible for things to be moved as slowly or as quickly as you want.’!) and seem to blend an awkward combination of long words with ‘think about it children?’ tone. As for the caption telling us the slide projector was the modern equivalent of some older image making toys, it just made us laugh…

There are occasional play areas – one ‘seaside’ themed had plentiful displays of Punch & Judy booths and puppets and a small sandpit; near the dolls houses and toy shops there are a dresser and range oven (range oven?) and near the building toys we found a small selection of Lego – probably not more than in our local building society!
Talking of wheels we inserted 20p into the model railway layout – Hornby Dublo type with its Thirties style rural stations – only to watch a sole engine (what happened to carriages you might ask) fall off the track and its twin go in ever slower circuits. Jo complained at the desk and was offered her 20p back but that was not the point – if you wanted to offer visitors an interactive experience make it meaningful and entertaining, not drab and pointless.

Yes there is an amazing range of dolls houses, rare puppets and some acknowledgement of different cultures. Yes this is billed as a Museum of Childhood but one that felt the exhibits had been conserved and catalogued at the expense of looking at the context in which they had once been played with – were these objects mass produced and available to all?  I think not when many children until 100 years ago were expected to work for their living..  In a Museum of Toys we needed a better idea of how some of them worked.  As the special exhibition showed the Museum is able to demonstrate clearly and with empathy the childhood of the unfortunate migrant children so why not apply these skills elsewhere in their collection?  

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