The V&A Museum of Childhood is both a historical collection of toys from the 18th century to the present and a place that attempts to symbolize what it means to be a child. The first floor consists of a vast collection of toys, from optical illusions to dolls to puppets to pop culture toys and much more. The second floor looks at childhood over the centuries and how the concept has evolved through ideas regarding the home, baby care, clothing, and how children learn and play. This is an interesting museum as you will find all sorts of people coming here to explore childhood, whether it be the young kids coming to have fun with their parents, the young adults who come back to reflect on their recent days, or even groups of elderly people who come for the sense of nostalgia. One of my favorite recurring images from this museum is seeing kids running around playing with toys while their parents rest on the couch. When you arrive here you should start by exploring the first floor.
|Museum of Childhood, London|
Although we now live in an age where moving pictures and cinema are more readily available than ever, it was only recently that this came to be. Some early examples of moving picture toys are the zoetrope (designed in 1870 by Milton Bradley) and the praxinoscope. To use the zoetrope you simply spin the drum and look through the slits. To use the praxinoscope you spin the drum and look at the mirrors. When spun the praxinoscope presents a humorous image of a guy jumping through a ring. The remainder of the section showcases early toys based around optical illusions, including lenses, kaleidoscopes, and panoramic slides. Some panoramic slides featured (from 1850-1880) show the same scene of a logger in the woods during the winter and spring seasons. Slides like this show how entertainment could be derived from images and illusions.
The next section worth visiting is the section devoted to clockwork, or more specifically toys designed to move through internal mechanical devices. One of the largest and most notable objects you will see is the Wave Machine from 1980. Powered by a motor that activates a turning rod attached to a series of cams, the machine creates the image of a rippling effect as the wooden waves rise and fall. Other types of clockwork toys, called “automatons,” featured in the museum include many animal inspired creations and other objects that were capable of complex movements. Despite the innocence of many of these toys (for example, one of my favorites is called “Monkey Musicians”), they were actually quite expensive to make and were made for wealthy adults to impress and entertain their friends, not for young children to play with. Other similar toys are toys based on friction movement. If you remember those mini Mattel cars then you will know what I am talking about. The wheels wind up and store energy that is released when you let the car go. The museum offers a large sample of these cars for you to view.
Moving on you will see galleries featuring some of the most popular types of toys: rocking horses and marionettes. The earliest rocking horses were from 1600, and only three ones from that time period remain today. The earliest one in the museum's collection, a large unrealistic rocking horse from 1800-1850, is distinctively different from the rest in the museum that were designed to look like elegant real horses. From about 1700, rocking horses were traditionally carved from wood by expert craftsmen, and in addition were hand-painted and fitted with saddles and bridles made from real leather. Another type of toy with a long and storied history is the marionette. Puppetry is said to have originated in the far east, with drawings showing children playing with puppets coming from as far back as 1100. Some of the most fascinating puppets to view are the Japanese bunraku puppets and the Chinese shadow puppets. These puppets hail from a tradition of oral storytelling that was an important part of east asian culture. One of the most impressive objects in the museum's collection is the giant baroque puppet theatre from the 18th century. Likely built in Vienna, the massive theatre was probably owned by a wealthy nobleman and used to entertain his family and guests. The theatre features two different backdrops and is incredibly impressive in its scope and size.
The remainder of the museum offers much more to see, from galleries on video games to board games, famous sci-fi and fantasy toys (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings anyone?), and even impressive dollhouses and Chinese Rock Gardens. However, you should make sure you travel up to the second floor to see the galleries there. Here you can see the progression of children's fashion from the 1700s to the present day. While children's clothing was initially very formal and handmade, often consisting of dresses and multiple layers, the style eventually shifted to more mass produced clothes with the industrialization of the 1800s. Nowadays, children's clothing comes in a wide variety of styles with a focus more on brand names. The remainder of the second floor examines childhood by looking at the concepts of the home, baby care, and learning and playing and seeing how these concepts have changed over time. Last but not least, there is an in-depth exhibit on child war games that looks at gender differences, competitiveness, and dress up, among other things that question the controversy that surrounds children and war games.
No matter your age, this museum will have something to offer you. If you have kids, bring them along and you will have free entertainment for them for the day. The museum offers lots of interactive exhibits and sections where children can play with toys, create their own drawings, or even learn how certain toys work. For adults, the museum brings back a lot of memories of days long past, and with it a warm sense of nostalgia. Although a smaller museum, this is one where you can still spend a good couple hours.
-By Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent, VisitMuseums.com