V&A Childhood Museum – Bethnal Green

The V&A Childhood Museum was convenient for me today on two levels. One: the location was perfect for us. Two: it begins with a V so was clearly another tick on my A-Z Winter Bucket List, with there being limited V’s to entertain us. We were winning even before we hit the East End!

Location

You’ll find the museum a stone’s throw from Bethnal Green Underground Station on the Central Line. If you’re visiting the capital for the day that’s only seven stops from Oxford Street but in the heart of the notorious East End of London. In Tudor times, Bethnal Green was considered popular with the gentry (what with its proximity to the city) but as the industrial revolution hit, London became a sprawling mass – and the working class headed out East! These days, it seems to me a melting pot of cultures: ultra-hipsters mingling with the lower end of the social spectrum. Deprivation and soy flat-whites seem to go hand-in-hand. Tower Hamlets, the local authority it sits in, continues to be one of the most deprived boroughs in London and the country – it seems crazy that the heart of the financial district and shopping are its neighbours.

The building itself is striking. I expected to read that it was an old disused train depot or something of the like but it was built in the Victorian Age of the Great Exhibition for the sole purpose of housing museum artefacts. Although the audience and content may have changed, it retains its Victorian detailing – even down to the fish-scale designed floor-tiles above, that were laid by the women inmates of Woking Gaol in the 1860’s (for further information click here for the V&A website). However, since the 1970’s, the V&A have developed it in to a unique collection of the ‘material culture and experience of childhood.’ You want a trip down memory lane… you’ve got it!

What will I see?

The museum is laid out on four floors. The ground floor houses a buggy park and allows you entrance to the impressive atrium. You have an open shop area selling beautiful, yet pricey items and there’s a cafe that sells great coffee and a good range of healthy lunches. We’re talking giant cous cous over fishfingers but with it being a new year I’m all about organic pulses (who am I kidding – I’d kill for a fishfinger sarnie with liberal lashings of ketchup).

The mezzanine floor is where it’s at. Here it’s like taking a step back in to your own childhood. All those Christmas lists, those toys your friends had that you desperately coveted, that tat you saved up three months pocket money to buy – all of it is here. As Harry looked longingly at trains, I darted from one glass case to another reliving my youth.

Did I visibly blanche when I saw that Care Bears were around in 1983? Hell yeah. It feels like yesterday that I used to lug Funshine and Cheer Bear in to primary school along with my collection of My Little Ponies. I wanted to be able to explain to Harry how immense the technology explosion has been in my lifetime – that yes, we used to load geometric, clunky games on to a TV screen using tapes and in my case a ZX Spectrum over an Amstrad ‘computer’… but tapes don’t even exist anymore… I’m not joking when I call myself an Unyoung Mum. This made me feel thoroughly geriatric!

That’s what I love about this exhibition. There really is something for all ages. The only minor frustration was dealing with the fact that all Harry’s favourites were behind glass. He was a bit grumpy he couldn’t touch the trains and play with all the things. The museum cleverly counteract this with plenty of areas that are hands-on and interactive.

The top floor is home to some seriously historical children’s artefacts from the victorian era but when there’s not a special exhibit, there’s an open space with plenty of enticing ‘stuff’ to play with, there’s a duplo table, construction area, a wooden sit-in fire engine, a sandpit, a book area and an under-3’s space. Had we not have experienced a code brown (toilets and nappy changing on the lower ground floor, accessed by lift or stairs), I think Harry could have wiled away the entire morning up there. On a previous visit, the top floor had become an ode to all things pirate. We had a great morning dressing up, walking the plank and generally being scurvy sea-dogs. I look forward to seeing how next the space will be transformed.

Events and Activities

Checking the website for events is a must. Being a celebration of all things childhood, they really cater for kids. Today we attended a free story session as part of their holiday activity programme but throughout term time you’ll find all sorts from arts and crafts to movement and play.

The session was perfect in length and managed to transform a toddler on the edge in to an enthralled little man. It was simple done – the story of a snowflake as it fell to earth and melted – but managed to combine scientific language of state of matter with old-school projection on a sheet. There was singing and tactile engagement as the children caught snowflakes and were sprayed by ‘the ocean.’

Recommendations

This was our third visit to the museum and it really is the kind of place you can keep going back to. We spent an hour and a half there and if he hadn’t been ready for a nap, we would’ve stayed longer. You could easily spend a good few hours engaging with the organised activities (there was arts and crafts in action as we left), exploring the exhibits and playing with the interactive bits. The added bonus is – everything was free. They ask for a donation but not in the pushy way some of the more central museums do on entry.

We got there on opening at 10am. We were first through the doors and it was lovely and quiet for the first half an hour. It does tend to get busier during term time with it being a prime venue for school parties so plan accordingly!

What with climbing all those stairs, walking the aisles of intrigue and the sensory overload of so much to see, touch and listen to, I am happy to report that there was a quality nap as a result of our morning’s exertions. A top hit on my list that will be revisited for sure.

Our visit really made me think about how much entertainment is delivered to children on a plate now – gone are the days where imagination was key. I wonder what it will look like in ten/twenty/fifty years time? What is the childhood toy you’d most like to see there? Were you a Sindy, Barbie or Ken kinda kid? Is it all about the Star Wars memorabilia? Let me know what brings back your youth in the comments so we can all feel that nostalgia!

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