Museum of Childhood Museum Review

The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green isn’t so much a Museum of Childhood as a Museum of Toys set around a large courtyard and cafe. It’s fun to look around and find your childhood toys on display and bring those memories back (although in my case I think they’re all still in my parent’s loft). But despite the large numbers of objects on display it didn’t really address the story of childhood and was all starting to feel a little flat. So thank goodness for their exhibition on War Games (On until March 2014).

Toy soldiers catalogue, Museum of Childhood, London

Toy soldiers catalogue, 1840-1842

The exhibition begins by looking at the concept of toys based on war: including guns, strategy games, model fighter planes and kids’ costumes, questioning their role, but in an open minded kind of way. Two photos taken by John Heywood in the 1980s show images of children playing with war toys. One shows two boys on bicycles with large, threatening toy guns, set against a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, with the second showing two boys in doors playing with toy soldiers and tanks. On first glance the large gun wielding kids on bikes is more disturbing, but why?

Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London

Brothers in Arms, John Heywood, 1985

Generals by John Heywood, 1985

Generals, John Heywood, 1985

The second part looks at war toys created in relation to real wars and looks at the fascination with new technologies in WWI and toy production up to the end of WWII. I loved how the objects on display all seemed to have real stories related to them rather than just being chosen because they were vaguely representative of the era.

For instance, a balsa wood plane made by an evacuee teenager in WWII that was returned to him in the 1980s by his evacuee family; two cardboard tanks made by a German boy in the 1930s are set side by side with a wooden lorry and aircraft made by a British father for his son; and an Anti-Aircraft Gun and Eagle Air Defence game made in a factory in Dresden that also made ammunitions during the war and was destroyed by Allied bombings in 1945. The context and thought around the chosen objects really helps visitors to engage with what they’re seeing alongside the wall text that describes the major themes over time.

The post-war era and beyond is represented by the idea of space and fantasy toys and the concept of ‘good’ against ‘evil’ rather than representations of present-day wars (particularly considering the Vietnam protests), although glorifications of WWII and older conflicts including medieval knights on horse-back were common.

This room also looks at how the same themes have continued from the past into today, but with a twist, and sets many toys side by side with the chance to vote for your favourite, including Lego Star Wars Death Star vs. a Castle Fort from the 1930s. From the looks of it the castle appeared to be winning.

From my experience with kids and parents who have frowned on war based toys, children genuinely like, and are naturally drawn towards, swords and guns and violence and I identified with the photo titled “Mum wouldn’t let me have toy guns, so I made my own” (Megan White, 2010) featuring a girl in the woods with a pretty large log as a machine gun.

However, the responses to the exhibition, which mostly looked like they were written by children, appeared to give a very negative view of war including: “I don’t like fighting because it is scary”, “I don’t like WAR because people die!!”, and “Guns kill people or make people terribly injured so I don’t like them”, with the odd one that was more interested in the concept – “I think it will be quite cool”. So is the view of war changing or does a negative view of war have little impact on children’s interest in playing with war based board games, video games and toys?

The exhibition was really well put together with well chosen objects and descriptions and I’d have preferred the rest of the museum to be along these lines too, more of a social history of childhood rather than just a load of toys in glass cabinets.

As an extra tip while you’re in the area check out the Gallery Cafe down the road – a non-profit cafe with cake, coffee, food and a garden at 21 Old Ford Rd  London, Greater London E2 9PL.

War Games is on until 9 March 2014
Museum of Childhood
Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9PA


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