I am a museum geek and have spent my entire life in all sorts of museums, so believe me when I say that the Museum of Childhood is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It had an array of exhibits and managed to capture that alchemy of childhood, creating environments that are wondrous without being patronising, and combining innocence with a sophisticated darkness. The building is a massive, imposing Victorian creation that is amazingly light and airy once you walk in. The day was beautiful, so the main entrance glowed in the sunlight.
Two exhibits caught my eye immediately, one was Victorian child portraiture by Julia Margaret Cameron. I love Victorian portraits, so I was completely entranced by beautiful photos of cherubic children dressed as Pre-Raphealite muses and Victorian ideals. She is also a completely fascinating artist and I didn’t realise her role in innovating photography of the time. On the other side of the hall was an amazing exhibit partly made by schoolchildren. The story of Fundevogel was posted next to a nightmarish forest of masked figures, monsters and creepy dolls. There were also lovely drawings of toys and a toy lineup that had some old and new faces.
The main room was split level and was filled with all sorts of toys from around the world, including controversial historical (though not as historical as I would like) toys such as Enid Blyton’s Gollywog (or Golly as people like to say now to try and mask its extremely racist and hurtful history.) It also had some Mary Quant doll prototypes that have been added to my inspiration folder. I have always been interested in the history and creation of toys, so it was nice to see failed prototypes of well-known toys alongside folk dolls, learning toys and wonderfully crafted and well-loved figures.
Another fantastic exhibit was a series of etchings by the Chapman brothers. A lot of people hate the Chapmans for being part of the YBA movement and their role in helping the more sensationalist, glory-hungry aspect of the movement flourish at the expense of the actual artwork. Examples can be found here and here (warning: NSFW) However, I think to throw the Chapmans away with the bathwater is to miss the fact that they are supremely talented illustrators and artists. Their exquisite corpse renderings and witty takes on appropriation and capitalism are perfect and this exhibit really highlighted their way of taking mundane childhood activities such as colouring books and transforming it into something that is playfully sinister.
I have already gone back a second time to see more of the museum and take more pictures. This is easily of of my favourite London museums, so if you are in the Bethnal Green area, do stop by to see a place that captures the memories, mystery and strangeness of childhood.