Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

IAN COLLINS Childhood isn’t what it used to be – or so a revamped East End museum now suggests. Ian Collins fears a wild adventure is turning timid and tame.

IAN COLLINS

When dear, stylish old friends are subjected to a trendy makeover I expect a terrible mauling, and so I proceed to the revamped Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in fear and trepidation.

This East End museum has always been a place of magic for me. Like a great 19th century market hall, the main prefabricated iron structure of 1856 originally formed part of the temporary buildings of what became the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Modelled on the Crystal Palace, this was one of four iron and glass constructions raised in South Kensington and soon to be replaced by a palatial pile.


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The four redundant iron and glasshouses were offered to North, South, East and West London as bases for local museums, and only philanthropists in Bethnal Green rose to the challenge.

Moved to the Cockney heartland, and encased in brick - with an added external frieze representing Agriculture, Art and Science, and a floor of mosaic tiles made by the female inmates of Woking Prison - the museum opened in 1872.

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Initially displaying the Food and Animal Products sections of the 1851 Great Exhibition (which rather mouldered as the years wore on), the showcase also included 18th century French art from what became the Wallace Collection and reviews of traditional East End crafts such as silk-weaving, shoemaking and furniture-making.

Recast as an art gallery after the first world war, the Bethnal Green centre marked its centenary with plans to show the parent Victoria & Albert Museum's collections of toys and other items connected with childhood.

And so, from 1974, it became the architectural equivalent of Peter Pan - antique but forever young.

Here were amazing displays of mad and marvellous toys down the ages: an entire puppet theatre from 18th century Venice, a fleet of Noah's arks from the Napoleonic era, a stately street of dolls' houses (one furnished by Queen Mary herself), games and puzzles, picture books, teddy bears (one black in mourning for Edward VII) and fabulously sinister dolls gazing with glass eyes from faces of wax or china.

Toys for boys and girls could be funny ha-ha and funny peculiar - a sea of gaudy brightness, with the dark undercurrent of favourite fairytales. Behold the arts of make-believe and of story-telling, with many fights and frights along the way made good by happy endings.

While appealing most of all to infants, Bethnal Green was also an Aladdin's Cave for adults - lined with milestones and piled high with nostalgic treasures for a trip back to childhood.

Then the brilliant place went dark amid plans for a £4.7m lottery-assisted overhaul. Those who believe that museums should be more about entertainment rather than about magical discoveries were getting to work - or so I feared.

Launched in a fanfare last month, the revised museum now has a rather beautiful entrance with a decorative façade which is actually flat but appears to have been built from children's building blocks. So far, so good.

But vast new lobby space intended for community projects was still being painted when I visited. Spanking new lifts carried Out of Order signs - as state-of-the-art technology so often does.

Walking into the beloved hall, what struck me first was a great expanse of emptiness, like a football pitch awaiting players.

In the far distance I could see the inevitable café, which looked quite tempting - though my attempt to buy a cup of tea from a team of assistants at 5.05pm (40 minutes) before the museum's closure was met by a “Sorry, we're shut.”

That gave me a flashback to the past. I was reminded of how the caffs in Communist East Germany closed with utmost reliability at the very minute you wanted to visit them.

The dear old building looks as glorious as ever, and the Victorian glass display cabinets arranged on the two upper tiers are much as I remember them.

But the displays seem thinned. The lighting is appalling - making it hard to look and impossible to linger.

Information is minimal, and not always convincing. The Ferguson radio looming large in my own childhood, and exhibited here, was bought new by my parents in the 1950s. Was it really made in the 1930s as the label claims?

The one innovation I really like are the play places in the spaces between the cabinets - the tables at which faces can be decorated with hair and beards via magnet pencils steering iron filings beneath the glass surfaces, a fancy dress disco, and worktops for reading, painting and building towers or entire cities in model construction kits.

In fact the whole stress of the overhaul is on the playschool approach. And while I'm happy with the play part, the school bit seems to be far more about distraction than discovery.

With a multi-cultural focus in an area with an ethnic majority - the borough of Tower Hamlets is now largely Bengali but also hugely diverse - the politically-correct compromise seems to be to promote the lowest common denominator.

There is nothing here that might possibly cause offence, or little to challenge youthful or adult minds. Suddenly the wild adventure of childhood seems altogether timid and tame.

The whole point about this page is that I share my enthusiasm for the wonders of London, of which there are so many. This is no place for carping. However.

The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood is still worth visiting - admission is free, and it is only a short walk from Liverpool Street (or one stop on the Central Line, then 100 clearly-signposted yards by foot). Families can fill a diverting hour here.

Possibly I visited at a time of teething problems which are even now being addressed. Decent lighting would put a different light on everything.

But I'm afraid I won't be hurrying back. The nearby Geffrye Museum on domestic life between the reigns of the two Elizabeths, though slightly diminished by a recent refit, has emerged with more of its glories still intact. The café is wonderful, and more welcoming. The garden is great.

More people now visit museums than attend football matches - a trend hugely enhanced by the scrapping of admission charges on all our national collections.

However smart their revamps, museums should remain cabinets of curiosities - with the focus firmly on exhibits and not on messages currently in vogue with dumbed-down curators.

As with childhood generally, there is just too much supervision. We need to be dazzled by discovery - drawing our own conclusions from touchstones to the human heart and the space in which to dream.

t Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 (020 8983 5200, www.museumofchildhood.org.uk).

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