V & A Museum of Childhood
Welcoming over 400,000 visitors through its doors every year, the V&A Museum of Childhood in London's Bethnal Green houses the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection of childhood-related objects and artefacts, spanning the 1600s to the present day.
With a fine collection of children's clothes and paraphernalia like high-chairs and prams, the museum also illustrates the social history of childhood — but few will be able to resist embarking on a quest to rediscover the toys and games of their youth. The museum building itself is worth a visit in its own right, being a fascinating remnant of the original South Kensington museum, comprising airy Victorian cast iron galleries with soaring vaulted ceiling, balconies and mosaic floor.
The permanent displays are divided into three main galleries: Moving Toys, Creativity and Childhood. If you are visiting with youngsters there are ample opportunities for participation, be it messing around in the sandpit or a ride on the ever-popular rocking horses.
On the first floor the Childhood Galleries get off to a positive start with 'Good Times', featuring party games like pin the tail on the donkey, an authentic Punch and Judy booth and seaside accoutrements from saggy hand-knitted bathing costumes to vintage buckets and spades. More toys and games follow — the plethora of scaled-down tool kits, lawnmowers and kitchens richly bearing out Roland Barthes' assertion that toys are a microcosm of the adult world.
The collection of children's clothing begins in the 18th century, when children were dressed as mini adults, and runs right up to the present day, on the way revealing how 'Lucy Locket,' of nursery rhyme fame, could have lost her pocket. Pride of place on this floor goes to the dolls houses, executed in every possible permutation of architectural style and degree of grandeur: from the lavishly furnished Nuremburg House of 1673 (the oldest in the museum) to Betty Pinney's House, complete with lift and roof garden.
The multicoloured 2001 Kaleidoscope House brings this section right up to date — perfect for today's brand-savvy youngsters. Plenty of space is given over the museum's extensive collection of puppets from around the world, the centrepiece of which is an 18th-century marionette theatre and its commedia dell'arte puppets. The theme of animation continues with the display of 'moving toys'.
Every form of propulsion is represented from simple pull-along toys to wind-powered yachts, battery-driven cars, wind-up tin toys, and self-propelled items like rocking horses and space hoppers. The Hornby train layout however runs exclusively on real coins. A large collection of eye-bending optical toys completes this section — from zoetropes to space invaders.
As you might expect, the museum is very child-friendly. The open plan galleries are spacious and well laid out and there are daily drop-in art and craft, storytelling, games and puppet sessions for children during term-time. Temporary exhibitions, often with multicultural or visual arts themes, add an extra layer of enticement.
The toilets are equipped for nappy changing and the lobby incorporates a capacious buggy park. The centrally placed ground floor café offers a kids' menu as well as tempting coffee and cakes — if you don't mind being surrounded by wailing infants. Over by the entrance the shop sells a selection of reasonably priced toys and books, many with a retro flavour and a sure hit with visitors of all ages.