If you’re looking for an East End museum that will really engage the kids, or fancy taking a trip down memory lane to your own childhood, then a visit to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is a must.
The V&A Museum of Childhood
The museum originally opened in 1872 as the Bethnal Green Museum – at this point, it was a general museum designed to bring cultural education to the local East End population. It contained food and animal products from the Great Exhibition, some 18th century French art and, over time, an increasing number of gifts that had been given to the Royal family.
History of the Museum of Childhood
In the 1920s, a new curator, Arthur Sabin, noticed that the museum was popular with children, and he started to reorganise it to make it more child-friendly. He set up a classroom and started to show more child-orientated exhibits. Queen Mary helped with this by donating some of her own toys to the museum.
From the 1970s, this child focus took over the general museum and it was renamed as the Museum of Childhood. It became the home of all of the V&A’s childhood exhibits and has continued to add to its collections ever since. This is now the home to the country’s largest collection of childhood objects, some of which you’ll recognise from your own childhood.
The Museum of Childhood Galleries
Exhibits in the museum are organised into four galleries. The Moving Toys gallery is divided into four sections — Pushes and Pulls, Look See, Springs and Cogs and Circuits and Motors. You can see anything here from rocking horses to toys with clockwork or battery operated moving parts and to optical toys.
The Creativity Gallery is also organised into sections – here you can look at Imagine, Be Inspired, Explore and Make it Happen. These sections explore how children use their imagination, inspiration, exploration and practical creative skills when they play.
The Childhood Galleries are home to the Babies, Home, What We Wear, Who Will I Be? and Good Times sections. The Babies sections looks at babies’ toys, while the Home section is the place to go if you want to see the museum’s extensive collection of doll’s houses. What We Wear contains displays of children’s clothes over the ages and Who Will I Be? Looks at role-playing toys and games.
The Front Room Gallery is the home of many artistic projects rather than a place to see exhibits and objects. This also includes local community projects.
What can you see at the Museum of Childhood?
The museum’s first emphasis is toys, games and puzzles, dolls and dolls houses. It also has exhibits that cover other aspects of childhood, such as clothes, collections, home, childcare, play and learning. It is home to the earliest surviving example of a rocking horse, which dates back to around 1600, but also has many contemporary objects in the collection.
If you have a construction lover in your family, then they’ll be kept more than happy. They can marvel at kits from Lego, Meccano, K’Nex, Lotts and Richter Anchor Blocks. The museum is a real treasure trove for doll lovers too, housing over 4,000 dolls. You can see contemporary dolls here like Bratz, Barbie and Sindy and can see many fine examples of antique dolls, including The Old Pretender Doll. This is thought to have been given to a family in the court of James II by a member of the Royal family. It dates back to around 1680. The oldest doll in the museum is, however, way older than this, dating back to around 1300 BC.
The Teddy Bear collection is also worth a look. As you might expect, you can see some classic antique bears here from manufacturers such as Steiff and William J Terry. The oldest bear in the collection dates back to the 1890s, but you can also see plenty of contemporary bears and soft toys here, including Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Rupert the Bear and Care Bears.
Activities for the Kids at the Museum of Childhood
Each of the three display galleries has a range of interactive and play activities for kids. They can play on a rocking horse, with a peep show or with a train set in the Moving Toys Gallery. In the Creativity Gallery, there is a sensory pod and a fun building block activity. The museum also runs arts and crafts sessions here every day from 2pm to 4pm.
Kids can also try on shoes from various time periods in the What We Wear section, and there are various role-play activities in Who Will I Be? These include dressing up, play vehicles, a play kitchen and plenty of Lego. There is also a sandpit in the Good Times area, Punch and Judy stalls and a jukebox.
The museum also runs free activity sessions during holiday periods. You can borrow Montessori family backpacks from the Information Desk, although you’ll need to leave a form of security such as a driving licence or passport. Entrance to the museum is free.