Come on feel the toys

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Full of light and space and hands-on zones, the refurbished Museum of Childhood opens its doors tomorrow

Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green

"I hate 'DO NOT' on exhibits," says Diane Lees, director of the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green in east London. "If it works and our visitors like it, they should have it. Anything that's out, you can play with.

Anything in a case, you can't."

She looks around the beautifully refurbished main hall glistening with light pouring in through windows that had been blacked out, shimmering with earthy pink paint to replace the institutional cream and grey. The national collection relating to children's lives is letting the light in from tomorrow. From the cleaned-up black-and-white mosaic floor downstairs to the shiny display cases upstairs, from new carpets to plentiful handling collections, the museum has been rejuvenated to offer more to its hordes of visitors.

Last year, 60,000 children came with school parties: around 30 per cent of the museum's 190,000 visitors, of which 60 per cent are aged under 16. Few have failed to be enthralled by the trains or the dolls' houses or the babies' rattles; few accompanying adults have not started shaking their heads with cries of, "I had one of those!". Whether it's a jukebox or a Tudor poppet (doll), you can find it here. As Ms Lees says, the collections are so versatile that they can be used to explain various methods of child-rearing, how toys move, or cultures in the East End.

The building has an intriguing past. In 1852, following the Great Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert decided to create a permanent display to inform and improve the working man. Devoted to the "application of Fine Art to Manufactures", the "Brompton Boilers" opened in 1857. The building was too small, and in 1864 was demolished to make way for an imposing new one, today's Victoria and Albert Museum. The Brompton Boilers were brought to Bethnal Green and re-erected. The outside was decorated with murals by F W Moody depicting the arts, sciences and agriculture, and the mosaic floor was put together by women prisoners from Woking gaol. In 1872, it opened as an outpost of the Vamp;A, attracting nearly 1.5 million visitors.

In the 1970s, with the growth of a new field of historical study - the history of childhood, as pioneered by Philippe Ari s in Centuries of Childhood - and wider public interest in all aspects of children's lives, the Vamp;A's large collection of child-related material was relocated to Bethnal Green. In its early years, there was tension between a museum of childhood and a museum for children: should masses of shrieking school parties take preference over scholarly adults? In recent years, and particularly with the appointment of Diane Lees, the museum has completely aligned itself with education.

Until recently, the museum had been limited by its inheritance. A big admissions desk stopped light and people circulating in the main hall, the cafe was hard to reach, the shop made a bottleneck, and the cases were arranged by chronology. All that has changed, or is changing, under the first of three phases to elevate the museum to world class.

The traditional Aston Webb display cases, with glass walls and wood frames, have been refitted, the semi-opaque laminate which protected from breakage replaced by a tough transparent film. Fibre-optic lighting makes furniture in every dolls' house clear as day; angled lighting, new shades in the roof and the ash-pink colour in the great space lift spirits. The aim, as architect Adam Caruso sees it, is to go beyond stabilising the magnificent structure; to "give it its dignity back".

In the new setting, activity assistants will be on duty all the time, instead of just at special events. They will tell stories, put on puppet shows, help with handling, making, experimenting. At weekends, they will work with families, during the week with school parties, linking TV's original Muffin the Mule figure to puppets representing angry Japanese kings, or stories from kitchens all over the world to toy pots and pans.

The museum links its collection to its community of children and families through its education work with four full-time staff. "We've mapped the schemes of work for key stages 1 and 2 on to our collections," says Ms Lees, "and we plan to do it for key stages 3 and 4 on technology at least."

Labelling, displays and signs have been piloted with user groups, parents and children. Quirky facts and clear posting of themes focus visitors' attention. A new area has been allocated to "The World in the East End", taking in memories of childhood from Bow to Bangladesh; other areas are called "In the House", featuring the famous dolls' houses and a replica kitchen to play with; "Learning to Be Grown Up", with construction, school, domestic and army toys; "The Height of Fashion", with costumes and a dress-up selection; "Out and About", in which cases on parties, the seaside and funfairs are centred on a real sandpit. In the temporary display area, a wall of Steiff teddies frolic in a sylvan background, part of the Teddy Bear Story, the first show in the new setting. What could be more welcoming?

Teddy Bear Story: 100 years of the teddy bear opens at1pm tomorrow until December 31 at the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2. Tel: 020 8983 5200; email:;

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