HERO WORSHIP. Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh. until September 28. tel 0131 529 4142.
Deedee Cuddihy wanders down memory lane, revisiting characters from childhood and finding out more about them
Fine books, thoroughly researched, beautifully displayed: This Book Belongs To Me is an exquisite show looking at children's books from the 17th century.
The contents are arranged under 11 themes, including desert islands, fabulous animals and toy stories. These begin with a relevant literary quote. Alice in Wonderland and Other Nonsense is introduced with the words:
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat. "We're all mad here."
Each theme has its own colour-coded section comprising an illustrated information panel, a small display case showing three of the finest examples of the genre and a larger case showing around a dozen lesser examples. Each of the larger cases also contains a number of complementary objects, such as tiny furniture in the Tom Thumb section and a pirate's bandana and gold coins in the desert islands case.
In 1621, Tom Thumb became the first folk tale hero to turn up in print and his appeal has endured to this day. On display is one of the few surviving examples of Tom Thumb from the 17th century, printed in Edinburgh in 1682. There is also a tiny Tom Thumb play book, which was printed in Saltmarket, Glasgow, by John Bryce in 1775 and described by the publisher as being "a new and pleasant method to allure little ones in the first principles of learning".
Jonathan Swift created his own miniature people in 1726 for Gulliver's Travels. Lilliput has its own section in the show and features a tiny papier mache trunk of Lilliputian-size books, including the Bible, a history of England and, of course, Gulliver's Travels.
In 1719, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, long considered to have been inspired by the life of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, made its first appearance and was an instant success, sparking off a series of island adventures including Treasure Island, Coral Island, Swiss Family Robinson and even The Tale of Little Pig Robinson by Beatrix Potter, who also features in the section entitled Four Put-Upon Heroes.
The Frantic Pranksters section describes itself as a "celebration of misbehaviour", the antidote to all those children's books that over the years have tried to encourage good behaviour and warned against being bad. Here are Oor Wullie, Jennings, Tom Brown's Schooldays, My Naughty Little Sister and Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair, who in 1839 had her character Laura declaring: "I have been quite as naughty as Harry. I was cutting off my hair all the time that he was setting the nursery on fire."
The display case features the remains of Mairi Hedderwick's childhood teddy bear which inspired her Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted story. Apparently the bear was lost in the sea off Coll but was washed ashore years later.
And so we come to Platform 93Z4. As well as a first edition of the first Harry Potter book, there are several pages of J.K. Rowling's first handwritten draft of chapter 11 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, complete with her editing marks.
Despite its appeal, this is a scholarly show and it would not necessarily hold the attention of the average young child were it not for the extras which have been incorporated to do just that. There is the storytelling tent furnished with comfy cushions where story tapes are played when a storyteller is not in residence and there is a reading corner with little chairs and lots of books plus a door with squeaky hinge sound effects.
More stories are explored at the nearby Museum of Childhood but the quality of the Hero Worship exhibition cannot compare.
The library, being a national institution, probably had considerably more resources at its disposal but that is really no excuse for what looks like sloppy display work and poor graphics here. There have been much more attractive exhibitions at the Museum of Childhood.
Having said that, there are a lot of fascinating items on show and many interesting and thought-provoking points are made about how and why childhood heroes have changed over the years.
As curator Carolyn Chinn explains: "Childhood heroes have evolved from the 18th-century role models intentionally used by adults to teach children lessons in morality and good behaviour to today's multimillion-pound industry where the hero's moral message takes a back seat to his or her money-making potential."
The exhibition makes a brief mention of adventure heroes in Ancient Greek times before getting into the main story, which is divided into seven chapters.
Real Life Heroes features a Bay City Rollers board game, circa 1975, where players "race each other to concert venues". There is also My Wallet of Favourite Teams in Football History which came free with a Tottenham Hotspur comic in 1960.
Very topically, the Super Heroes display case gives pride of place to a Spiderman playsuit from 1987.
In Girl Power, we are reminded that the comic world's first super heroine, Wonder Woman, was created in 1941 to "help the US win the Second World War".
Ms Chinn points out: "In the 18th and 19th centuries, girls had to content themselves with domestic heroines who were waiting to be saved by Prince Charming. After 1918, British women got the vote and girls began to look forward to more adventurous lives, as shown in Angela Brazil's and the Chalet School books. These days, heroines such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lara Croft demonstrate that girls no longer have to wait to be saved."
A big section on action men features Zorro, James Bond, lots of the detective material that was so popular in the 1930s and 40s and a toy machine-gun.
The American West spawned many of the best-loved heroes of all time and from that masses of merchandise, including cowboy and Indian outfits, badges, toy guns and even novelty cowboy soap.
Parents who these days feel that cowboy heroes rely too heavily on violence to resolve conflicts obviously haven't read the Gene Autry Cowboy Code (on display) which states: "The cowboy must not shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage."
No exhibition about childhood heroes would be complete without outer space characters and this section is complemented by a working Star Wars arcade game from 1983 which seems very popular.
Other activities include a dressing-up area, reading corner, colouring table and quiz sheet.