I SPY LONDON the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing Part 16:The Museum of Childhood
Location: Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA [map] Open: 10am - 5:45pm Admission: free 5-word summary: the toys of grown-up kids Website:www.vam.ac.uk/moc Time to set aside: an hour or two
Bethnal Green's not somewhere you'd usually think to take children, especially not to a museum. But the V&A owns a showcase here devoted entirely to all things youthful, recently reopened after a £8m refit, so you might well think again. The building housing the Museum of Childhood started out 150 years ago as a temporary exhibition space in South Kensington. The iron-framed structure was no longer required when the V&A's current permanent home was built, so the curators dismantled it and shipped it across the capital to provide a new home for knowledge and culture amongst the slums of the East End. And the museum's still here, its mission since 1974 to concentrate on "objects made for and made by children". Toys R Them.
From the street outside the red-brick shell of the museum looks somewhat reminiscent of a large Victorian railway terminus, albeit with a modern trendy foyer bolted onto the front. Inside it's more a strange mix of meat market and cathedral, with two floors of open-sided galleries running along each side of a cavernous central aisle. At your feet is an extensive marble-tiled floor, painstakingly laid by women prisoners from Woking, upon which today's curators have dropped an information point, shop and café. Ignore those, and head up the steps to the galleries.
You don't need to have a pair of kids in tow to enjoy the museum. In fact, you may find they get in the way. As an adult, you'll be immediately drawn to the old toys and games displayed in a series of glass cases. They've been arranged thematically rather than by age, so you'll find an 18th century doll in the same cabinet as Play School's Jemima, and a Victorian zoetrope alongside a Chad Valley slide projector. I wandered the floors on a nostalgic journey, my eye drawn by long-forgotten treasures once stacked inside my own toy cupboard. The hand-me-down Meccano of my childhood is now a museum exhibit, as is that tub of Play-doh, that Spirograph box and that Scalextric set. Even items I never realised other kids owned - such as Lott's Bricks, Playplax and Blast Off - are all catalogued here with unexpected importance.
The newly-revamped museum has tried hard to keep its younger visitors amused. They've provided a ball pond by the board games, a dressing up area by the dolls houses, and something to clamber on near the teddy bears. There's even a big Robbie The Robot to meet and greet, and an interactive magnetic game based on a best-selling 60s Beatles toy. But all the best toys are in the glass cases, out of reach. Look, Matchbox cars! Look, Weebles! Look, a Binatone TV Master Mark 6! No child will have the staying power to view the entire collection, not when they have far more exciting games they could be playing at home. So if you decide to visit, I'd recommend packing your kids off to the child minder for a couple of hours. Then meet up with a few mates of a similar age, head over to Bethnal Green and enjoy reliving your mutual childhoods. Yes, those really are Smurfs, and did you have that blue scooter too? Great stuff. by tube: Bethnal Green