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When I was a youngster Bethnal Green Museum was a regular place to visit. It wasn’t the Museum of Childhood then, just a normal museum. The first floor though, did have some of the exhibits that are there today, such as the dolls houses and miniature shops. I was always fascinated by the small tools and utensils in some of the models.
At the time I am talking about, the 1950’s and 60’s the ground floor was full of old paintings. I don’t know where these are housed now but I do recall that some of them were of a very great size. As I lived just around the corner I spent a great deal of time there. It was a place to go on a rainy day or when there was not a lot going on in the streets. Barney Bell, if that was his real name, was one of the attendants and someone who I can remember vividly from those days. They used to wear full uniform then and stored your bags as you went through the turnstile.
It was a great place then and as I found out on a recent visit still has a great deal to offer but I missed the paintings from downstairs. It was my first visit for over forty years, even though I still live only a short walk away.
Sculpted by John Bell in 1851 from cast iron, to be displayed at the Great Exhibition, it shows the near naked figure of a man with his bow, aiming his arrow at the Eagle that has killed one of his lambs. The dead lamb lies at his feet.
It stood in the grounds outside the museum for many years but because of vandalism fears after renovation it now stands inside, near the ground floor cafe’. The white painted cast iron makes it look like pure marble. I may be wrong, but I can’t recollect it being painted white when it stood outside (apart from the pigeon droppings I suppose)!
There was also once, a fountain with a statue of Saint George on top outside the museum that unfortunately fell and was removed many years ago.
When you enter the museum you can’t help noticing it’s strange construction in the form of a metal framework. This is because when the Bethnal Green Museum was founded in 1872 a prefabricated building from the Victoria and Albert renovations was used to set it up.
It started to concentrate on childhood from 1920 onwards with old dolls houses and toys but never got the official title of ‘Museum of Childhood’ until 1974. It is now the recognised national museum and has the largest collection of childhood related objects in Great Britain.
In 2005 it closed for just over a year for renovation, opening again in December 2006. Although the original red brick building and metal framed interior remain, a modern extension has been added to the front of the building. Totally unnecessary in my own opinion.
My photos of the Museum of Childhood will give you some idea of what the museum is like today better than any description I could give here (please excuse the poor quality, as flash and glass cases are a bad combination), but here is an extract from the museums own text about it and it’s purpose:
“The V&A Museum of Childhood aims to encourage everyone to explore the themes of childhood past and present and develop an appreciation of creative design through our inspirational collections and programmes”.
“The Museum is part of the V&A family of museums, and houses the national childhood collection. The galleries are designed to show the collections in a way which is accessible to adults and children of all ages”.
“We have a dynamic programme of temporary exhibitions, daily activities and seasonal events, and an excellent education programme with popular teaching sessions and resources linked directly to the National Curriculum. With its strong commitment to cultural diversity and social inclusion, the Museum has established very close links with its local communities through a diverse programme of collaborative visual arts and oral history projects”.
I’ve been back to the museum a few times recently when I have had visitors staying with me and they were all fascinated by the varied exhibits. There are very old primitive dolls and toys through the ages right up to the modern day electronic ones. You are bound to find some of your childhood memories there along with clothing, prams and a host of other things connected with childhood. There are also some interactive exhibits. As well as items from Britain there are many from Germany, Japan and other countries If ever you are passing this way it is well worth a visit.
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