Do you remember your favourite toy as a child?
You might just re-discover it if you visit the ‘V&A Museum of Childhood’. The museum houses one of the world’s greatest collections of toys, games, doll’s houses and childhood-related objects. A trip to this museum is sure to trigger a wave of nostalgia – you will repeatedly find yourself saying ‘Ahh, I had that!’ or ‘Do you remember when we used to play with this?’. If you haven’t been there already, this autumn is a great time to visit. The museum is only one stop away from Mile End on the Central Line, so it is very easy to get there from Queen Mary.
Every visitor remembers something different. Personally, I get a rush of nostalgia when I see the barbie dolls, the marble run set and the wooden BRIO trains. ‘We all come here to be big kids again!’, one lady told me with a smile. I asked her if there was a toy that she remembered from her childhood. She replied: ‘I remember the LEGO figures with moveable limbs particularly well – in fact, I remember the year they came out’. Apparently, in 1978 Weetabix had a special promotional offer – if you bought three boxes of Weetabix, then you could get a special edition LEGO figure with moveable limbs. The lady told me that she ate her way through whole three boxes of Weetabix (even though she hated Weetabix), just to get this special edition toy!
Isn’t it incredible how we can all look at the same objects, but make such different associations? We all walk through the same space. Yet each of us has a different experience because we each enter into our own stream of memories. It may be that we are all ‘taking a trip down memory lane’, but memory lane is a different place for each of us. Memory lane is our own secret street that winds its way deep into the recesses of our mind.
As a volunteer at the museum, I have had many opportunities to explore the collection. One of my favourite sections of the museum is the optical toys display. Many of these toys trick your eyes into seeing movement from a series of still images. They make use of the fact that our eyes can remember an image for a brief moment after the image is gone. This is what is known as ‘persistence of vision’. If images are shown one after the other in quick succession, it seems like they are moving – just like if you are watching a film. In fact, these toys are the precursors to modern cinema.
The doll’s house collection is also amazing. One of the doll’s houses is a donation from Queen Mary. The Queen visited the museum several times in the 1920s and particularly loved the doll’s houses. As a result, she decided to donate her own to the museum in 1921.
I don’t know what it is about these ‘shrunken worlds’ that fascinate us so much. Perhaps it is just the novelty of seeing miniature versions of recognizable objects – tiny pots and pans; chairs and tables perfectly designed and constructed. Or perhaps, we are so taken by them, because they give us a glimpse of the lives that take place behind closed doors. You can get an idea of how people live, or at least of how they have lived in the past. Each house is filled with clues about its owners, their lives and aspirations, as well as the time period in which they lived.
I asked the museum director, Alan McGregor, what his favourite part of the museum was. He told me that he actually really liked the building itself. I was slightly surprised at first, but then I came to understand what he meant. We were standing on the first floor at the far end of the building, where you have a view over the entire museum. ‘There are few museums where you have such a great overview of the whole building”, he said. And, it’s true, I don’t think I have been in any other museum – at least not in London – where that is the case.
The fish-scale patterned floor of the building also has an interesting history. The small mosaic tiles for the floor were made by female prisoners from a jail in Surrey. The women could earn 1 shilling 2 pence a day by breaking up blocks of marble to make the tiles. If you look at the floor from above, you might be able to notice a few mistakes in the fish-scale pattern. However, this is not the fault of the female prisoners, as they did not lay the floor themselves.
These are just a few of the reasons to visit the Museum of Childhood – there is so much more to discover for yourself. So, if you have a few spare hours on your hands, I can definitely recommend a trip to this museum. Oh, and if you decide to make a visit, don’t forget to say hello to ‘Dismal Desmond’ – it helps to cheer him up! He’ll be waiting for you on the ground floor on the left hand-side.