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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

South Ken's Kid - The V&A Museum of Childhood

The V&A Museum of Childhood neatly situated in Bethnal Green has also been on my museum-loving radar but it wasn't until recently (prompted by their exciting Small Stories Exhibition) that I purposefully ventured to East London to see it. 

 I have little doubt that most museum geeks have dreamt of walking into one of the buildings of the South Kensington museum and seeing for themselves the high ceilings and classical steel frameworks on the original exhibition road. If you like I have had this dream then the building that hosts the V&A Museum of Childhood is the closest thing to it. And of course it is, the Museum of Childhood isn't a small museum that has been rescued by the V&A in hard times, it is the child of the divorce of the South Kensington Museum. 

Originally known as the Bethnal Green Museum, the V&A Museum of Childhood was a direct response to the success of the area known as Albertropolis on Exhibition Road. Henry Cole alongside the South Ken Museum's Operating Department thought that their museum was so wonderful that every area of London should have their own version of it - North, East and South needed a regional edition. However, it was only East London  who would take up this challenge, assisted by three local figures who had already begun to lobby parliament for a museum to be built on land they had bought for the community in Bethnal Green. So, in 1861 construction began.

Initially the museum displays housed a range of objects, some pieces from the Great Exhibition alongside 18th century French art on loan from the Wallace Collection and it even began to house some of the Royal Families gifts. Closing during the conflicts of  WW1 it became a storage facility for the royal families gifts and the V&A museum. 

Reopening after the war saw a dramatic shift for the museum with the curator Arthur Sabin being pulled in specifically to sort the place out. Having noticed the hoards of bored and noisy children he began to make the museum more child-friendly with displays of childhood related objects becoming more and more popular as the years passed. So popular in fact that as Roy Strong was appointed director of the V&A  in 1973 he instigated a stark change and all childhood related objects from the V&A were ordered to go to the Bethnal Green Site opening in 1974 as the V&A Museum of Childhood.

Visiting the museum today is a mix of nostalgia and fascination with recognisable toys alongside those owned by royalty and the elite. Perhaps this is why their current temporary and touring exhibition Small Stories is so thrilling. Dolls houses are the toys of the elite, and representational of social and economic histories as well as being a familiar toy for many across classes.. I was fortunate enough to have an eighties barbie version that had and still does pass around the numerous female members of my extended family.

With such an exciting exhibition topic that incites wonder in visitors of all ages could it possibly go wrong? Certainly not in the case of the V&A Museum of Childhood and if anything it has reinstated its place on the museum map of London. Tweleve dolls houses dominate the exhibition space on the top floor exploring the history of the home, everyday lives and changing family relationships. 

As you wander among the examples you discover their original intention as the plaything of wannabe controlling adults and for women an opportunity to feel ownership over a home, unlike in real life when their wealth was only in the furniture they owned and not the house in which they lived. The exhibition not only shows off the fantastic collection of roughly 1,900 objects carefully conserved over the last two years but it sheds a light on the idealised life reflected in a simplistic toy. The craftsmanship of the miniatures from tiny paintings and photography to the unbelievable furniture and murals on walls and the characters created in them emphasises the ideal of exerting control over beauty. The Betty dolls house even has its idealised version of a drunken man in its salon whist other scenes show ladies enjoying their parlours. But the exhibition isn't limited to the elite and grand, it also features modern council houses and tower blocks indicating the progression of the modern family.

Not only does the exhibition showcase amazing objects that really do incite wonder and a dreamlike state to visitors they are hosting great events with a haunted dolls house tour on the 25th Feb.  and writing fascinating blogs on their website including this one about how they carefully illuminate each tiny room. 

Small Stories: At home in a Dolls House runs until 6th of September 2016 with free entry 

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