Victorian attitudes to children were famously forbidding. That might partly explain why London's Museum of Childhood is little heard of by most visitors to the capital. Then there's the building itself a red-brick and iron shed, an unloved Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington that in 1872 was rebuilt in Bethnal Green as a cultural outpost for the museum's overspill, particularly its collection of dolls and children's costumes.
Some of the gloom and an aura of worthiness persisted even after its rebirth as the Museum of Childhood in 1974. But a visit there became a quiet family pleasure a treasure chest for kids of toys, games and cool stuff from around the world and across the centuries, and for parents, an invitation to bathe in nostalgia.
Following a 13-month, $9.2 million makeover, the museum still exudes a tranquil charm. But light now floods in through roof panels, and with a new granite and red marble foyer grafted onto the front of the building, the exhibition spaces are much less cluttered. Just as important, says Diane Lees, the museum's director, is the rethinking of its layout. "We wanted it to be much more about seeing the exhibits in context," she says.
The regimented ranks of dolls and bears have been scattered among the rows of full-length, small-person-accessible glass cabinets, now themed with titles such as Imaginary Play and Classic Fantasy. Pride of place still goes to such rare items as the Dutch-made Princess Daisy doll (1890), and the two exquisitely detailed tabletop layouts of Chinese rock gardens once owned by the Empress Josephine (1780), which, apart from being handcarved in wood, ivory and mother-of-pearl, look like giant Polly Pocket sets.
But now, when the frustration of admiring but not touching everything from a 17th century rocking horse or Javanese shadow puppets through to vintage Playstations and Pokémon shoes gets too much, there are giant magnetic-doodle screens, fiber-optics and a wooden wave machine to play with. And lots of stuff for the kids to do, too. museumofchildhood.org.uk