Much emphasis is placed these days on museums appealing to all ages, so it’s no surprise that the more interactive a museum is with its visitors, the better its reputation. What could be more appealing than a museum about childhood?
The objects are of course the big attraction – toys! The grown-ups go for the nostalgia, the memories; the kids find entertainment in the simplicity of old unsophisticated toys. Where are the batteries? The switches? The keyboard? There are dolls, toy soldiers, ancient board games, spinning tops and Lego (of course). Where there are the original packaging and cartons, it’s also an exploration of marketing, illustrations, and typography. Never forget the toy in its original box is premium! When you spot the very edition of Monopoly, Scrabble or Mechano you had in your toy cupboard, there’s a strange sense of elation. I think this is what makes childhood museums special; there’s something in the glass cabinets that everyone can relate to, and for the grandparents you take along for the day out, there is the delight in watching them point out their memories – their toys, wooden and simple, have vanished from the toy stores to be replaced with plastic. (I went to great lengths to find wooden toys for my kids.)
Where can you visit such a place?
The Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire is now owned by The National Trust. The museum is housed in the narrow rooms of the stable block. It’s a little cramped and the collection is crammed into the space with ingenuity (there’s an upside bedroom on the ceiling, I kid you not). Timed tickets are required to manage the flow. It’s very easy to lose track of time. But the museum isn’t just a collection of toys, it also reminds visitors of the hardships of growing up when there were no laws to protect children from exploitation. A popular exhibit is the chimney sweep. Parents watch, with mild alarm, as their small child scrambles up a fake chimney, their legs disappearing above the hearth, only to find them rematerialising further along the room. While your child is over-excited, adults are given a reminder how much childhood has changed in the last one hundred years with informative exhibits and boards.
Children can attend the school room for Victorian style lessons and play games on the lawn outside. There’s also the house to visit to finish off the day.
There are other museums of Childhood in the UK, one at Edinburgh, another in the V&A in London. But there is something special about this maze of little rooms and the pristine toys on the shelves, and it’s what museums excel at if done well – bringing the past back to life and creating a connection to our forebears. Nothing should be forgotten.
What toy do you miss most from your childhood?