V&A Museum of Childhood in London is home to the largest collection of childhood objects in the UK ranging in date from the 1600’s to the present day. It has a vast selection of toys from years gone by that makes it just as appealing to nostalgic adults as it is to children. We are very fortunate to have this little gem on our doorstep so often get to explore this magical museum.
As you arrive at Bethnal Green in the East End of London, an area full of charm and history, you will see the lovely 19th century building that houses the museum. It is well worth a visit for this reason alone, with its bright and airy Victorian cast iron galleries, tall ceiling, balconies and striking floor.
The museum was founded in 1872 as the Bethnal Green Museum and was designed to bring cultural education to the East End population. Originally there were food and animal products on display, some 18th century French Art and a number of gifts that had been given to the Royal Family. It wasn’t until the 1920s it began to focus on services for children when a new curator, Arthur Sabin, realised just how popular the museum was with children. It was only then that more child friendly exhibits were put on display and Queen Mary donated some of her own toys to the museum. In 1974 the director of the V&A, Sir Roy Strong, defined it as a specialist museum of childhood. Today there are around 450,000 visitors a year who come to explore this treasure trove of toys in this free entry museum.
On our visit I am with 4 children aged from 4 months to 12 years old. The friendly staff welcomed us on arrival where there was an instant echo of children’s laughter and their excited squeals which immediately prepares you for the fun about to be had. I recommend you look down, the beautiful mosaic tiles on the floor were made by women prisoners from Woking jail which I always like to make a point of mentioning to my daughter.
The Moving Toy gallery on the ground floor is divided into 4 sections, Pushes and Pulls, Springs and Cogs, Circuits and Motors and Look See. As we made our way through the exhibits we pointed out enthusiastically the Scalextrix, Game Boy and pull along toy animals we used to play with. There is plenty for the children to engage with, including rocking horses to ride on, Robbie the Robot and a train set.
The Creativity gallery on the same floor is also organized into sections; Imagine, Be Inspired, Explore and Make it Happen. Again nostalgia sets in as this is where we found the beloved Care Bears, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington and Barbie dolls I used to play with as a child. With over 4,000 dolls in the collection the museum is a massive attraction for doll lovers with dolls ranging from the more modern Bratz and Sindy to many fine antique dolls. Kids’ activities in this gallery include a sensory pod and Build it up and Knock it Down building blocks where children from all nationalities and backgrounds come together to play. My daughter is a big fan of the sensory pod and excitedly ran in and out as the lights flicker from blue to pink to green.
We then made our way to the Childhood galleries on the first floor, which is split into five themes; Babies, Home, What We Wear, Who Will I Be and Good Times. In the Home section there are row upon row of historical dolls houses. Never have I seen such a grand set of dolls houses ranging from the exquisitely furnished Nuremberg House of 1673, the oldest in the museum, to Princess Elizabeth’s House in 1935 and a more modern example, the multicoloured 2001 Kaleidoscope House. These all loom above a much smaller dolls house that the kids can get their hands on, allowing a quick lesson on the history of the home. Originally dolls houses were made for wealthy adults to admire, it wasn’t until the 18th century that dolls houses were made for children to play with.
Next was the ‘What We Wear’ section where the collection of clothes begins in the 18th century when children wore very adult style clothing and continues to the present day where converse and more bright colours are featured. There are clothes and shoes to dress up in from eras gone by, the Victorian boots are a particular hit with the kids. The ‘Who Will I Be’ section looks at role play and games. The kids can climb into a police car wearing uniform, play in an old style kitchen, or build with Lego. There is also a quiet reading area with books nearby which is particularly useful if the children are tired and in need of some time out.
This then leads you to the ‘Good Times’ section where there are objects relating to the seaside, circus and fairground. There is also an opportunity here to play cards and games together. My daughter spotted the sandpit with a squeal of delight while my friend’s 8 year old put on his own show for her in the Punch and Judy theatre boxes while she played in the sand.
Finally we visited the free Game Plan exhibition, which runs until 23rd April. This exhibition is all about the joy, excitement and frustration of playing games. You move round as if you are playing a board game with various interactive displays to spin or move you on as you go. So much fun! My 12 year old goddaughter was in her element. This exhibition could not be more family friendly. There are 100 objects on display including games such as Monopoly (hours of fun being in jail), Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit, which will have you all reminiscing about family days spent playing. There are also games you can actually play which include Droughts, Snakes and Ladders and The Goose Game. At the end of the exhibition there is a final game, which confirms what type of player you are. I was defined as a gloating winner and my goddaughter a cheat. We both were given a badge to prove it and my daughter proudly wore mine on her coat.
The café operated by Benugo is great for children with lots of mini me options such as sandwiches, cakes, raisins and fruit. There is plenty of space too with highchairs available. The museum is fairly confined which of course does help with toddlers and there is a real sense of safety within the museum. The facilities for parents/guardians are fantastic and include a buggy park, a quiet room and baby changing in both the men and women’s toilets.
There are also free children’s events, which on the weekend include storytelling, exploring the collections and art and craft sessions. My daughter particularly enjoys the storytelling where puppets and enthusiastic staff bring the stories to life.
On the way out you can’t miss the magnificent shop, with its books begging to be picked up. So many beautiful gifts for children, I absolutely love this shop. My daughter tends to grab a book off the shelf and sits on the welcoming beanbags, turning the pages enthusiastically. I can guarantee you will walk out with one of these wonderful books and you will not be disappointed.
All in all the V&A Museum of Childhood is an excellent family day out with so much on offer for the little ones. I can’t think of a more fun way for children to learn history than through the use of toys and would consider it a must see if you are in London with the kids.