Childhood’s End?


I have a history of being massively disappointed with revisits to museums of my childhood – especially the tarted-up National Maritime Museum, where a century of serious, intelligently curated art was largely replaced by too many toddler-friendly ‘experiences’ (sample exhibition: ‘Pirate Girlz!’). One of the only museums to escape this blight has been the revamped Imperial War Museum.

Now comes news that the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (prop. the all-consuming V&A) is going to close for two years so that it can become a kind of M&M World for ADD kids. The museum had been going that way for some time, the curators confusing the term ‘childhood’ with the term ‘children’, and the older stranger toys being phased out in favour of crayon corners (or ‘cornerz!’). A close look at a larger version of the above revamp design suggests that it is nothing but a giant playground.

While woke curators cleanse British museums of anything carrying a hint of controversy (and how many historical toys would pass today’s sensitivity tests?) we’re left with candy-coloured play areas and gift shops. I’m betting Struwwelpeter won’t get a look in, or anything that requires setting in historical context.

Meanwhile, author Lissa Evans reminds me of ‘The Annotated Alice’, a superb book which came out decades ago and has been endlessly reprinted. The volume explains who and what the characters represent, and shows a way of setting the nonsense story in its correct social context. Any museum could follow its template – but it would require a bit of work from the visitor. The curators could perhaps stick an ‘interactive’ label on it, though, and put it on a colourful video screen. Because that’s all most London museums are now, bucket list selfie spots, gift shops and eye-waveringly expensive interactive exhibitions. When the esteemed British Library staged an Alice in Wonderland event they opted to use Disney’s characters instead of Tenniel’s. Who wants to see some creepy old characters from a book?

16 comments on “Childhood’s End?”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    I visited the museum at least 30 years ago, and enjoyed my visit too. It’s sad that some things are so subject to the ‘bums on seats’ formula, even sadder when it’s used to infantilise a museum full of amazing reminders of past childhoods, with exhibits that can both remind us when old, and inform us when young, of how the views on childhood change and develop over time.

  2. davem says:

    I couldn’t agree more Chris, very valid points

    Loved the NMM as a kid, but it’s moved in such a bad direction.

    Regarding ‘The Annotated Alice’, seconded that this is an excellent read.

  3. Roger says:

    “The Annotated Snark” – also by Martin Gardner – is another excellent book. I think the BL used Disney’s versions of Carroll’s characters for the understandable – if no more forgivable – reason that they were paid to.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Interactive is fine if it helps the visitor interpret something exhibited but turning museums into playgrounds helps no one and ignores the fact that adults visit museums and would like to learn something about the culture surrounding them. I remember my son saying that he finally had to leave the British Museum one day because he was afraid his head would explode from all the things he had seen and learned. Surely that is the experience we should be working for. The history curator at the Vancouver Museum visited York shortly after that experiential train was installed. He thought it was a great adjunct to historical exhibits but should not take their place. Smells and noises are usually missing from museums and we can’t imagine a silent or sanitised past so having a place where those things are present fills out the mind’s vision of the past.
    I agree that the curators have confused childhood and children. There are quite a few things that were a part of childhood’s past that children today would find horrifying – upper class girls’ clothing for example, school discipline, children in the poor house. They should be in the museum of childhood. Just let the readership here loose on the museums and we’d show you how to reveal the past to people of the present.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    I find the larger museums and art galleries just overwhleming these days. I don’t know whether that’s me or them. In London I think the small specialised ones which aim to tell a single story to be much more enjoyable and informative. And usually they have folk on hand who love the place they are in and just want to talk about it. The Foundling museum, Charles Dickens House, the Canal Museum, the Fan Museum at Greenwich, the Florence Nightingale museum, Keats House are all worth having a mooch around. And for a real gem – the mechanical musical museum at Kew with its clockwork music boxes and Wurlitzer organ is something else entirely.

  6. brooke says:

    Childhood’s End… or Grammar’s End? “Girlz,” “cornerz.” My parents would have protested loudly against any public institution using such pretend language. Where are the parents?

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Mama Weer All Crazee Now – Who would have thought Slade were the Nostradamus of the 70’s.

    There was a street done with smells and sounds in the MOSI as it’s now labelled. Most children loved it. dressing up in Victorian clothes, my little one loved, actually experiencing the past does work. I went done an old coal mine as a kid, and went to Styal mill and did some lower bottom knocker holding. Actually seeing artefacts lets us know so much more.

    I think museums are missing the point, it’s schools and parents who take kids to museums, so to get them there in the 1st place you have to get adults first, looking at that I can see a lot of parents just thinking no.

    As to the horrible and unjust things that went on, just take a look at horrible histories which shows these things and is greatly loved by kids, and adults like me.

    If children do want to know, just look at the climate change rallies, don’t hide the ugly truth from them, show it and they will react against it to stop it happening again and to change what is wrong now. A cosseted sense of privilege doesn’t help, we need our warning from the past.

    Maybe they could do an exhibition on evil bankers, just a thought. Sorry financial crashes and the long term devastation, 20’s 7 30’s depression and the 70s bleak winter plus modern austerity. And this is a food bank….


  8. brooke says:

    @Wayne, “an exhibitopn on evil bankers…” You’re on to something… I’ve seen analysis of recent Ireland vote that attributed SF win to young’s revolt against austerity following housing/financial crisis. Here, youngs are for Sanders and loudly protesting against capitalist wage suppression. From what I’m seeing–youngs have first hand experience with food banks.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Brooke, the letter ‘s’ is clearly so old fashioned as to be almost redundant – this trend started with hairdressers and barber shops who started giving themselves names like ‘Kutz’, ‘Stylz’ and ‘Scizzorz’. Me and my pals (sorry, palz) reckon that in ‘Course 3B – English for Hairdressers’ you get a box of ‘Z’s handed out when you get your certificate.

  10. Andrew Holme says:

    Read Lissa Evans ‘Wed Wabbit’. It might be a book for children. It’s definitely a brilliant book for everyone.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Children today should be told the facts about things, no matter how dark, disturbing or unpleasant. When I was 11, and in my first year of secondary school, there was a lesson called ‘Humanities’. We were often shown films in this: some were pretty simple, and easily forgotten – others, you couldn’t unsee for a long time. One, about Whaling, caused some kids to be sick, and several were escorted out crying. A similar result for the one about animals (mans’ misuse of) this was 1974, so there was no real agenda at work here. I’m pretty sure that this was where I saw ‘The War Game’ for the first time, too. It was definitely where I first saw ‘Kes’, and ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’. Kids mustn’t be shielded from the horrid bits of life – I wasn’t, and it did me no harm.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    I agree Brooke. It was the young who supported Corbyn here.

    Ian, I also remember the old PIFs, such as Deep Waters, some of them were truly scary. They also inspired such hauntological sites as Scarfolk, must get a copy of the annual some day.


  13. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – I bought the ‘Scarfolk’ annual last month. It’s wonderful, funny – and strangely terrifying. I’d recommend it highly. It even has their own version of ‘Dark And Lonely Water’.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – if you like that, you might be interested in the ‘League Of Gentlemen’ tie-in book, ‘A Local Book For Local People’. A brilliantly dark and funny book, written with care, and staying true to the TV show. Try to get the hardback – it has a textured dust sleeve, made up of a montage of human skin. It’s horrid, and, if you’re male, eye-watering, as part of it is a scrotum. With a staple through it. I bought the book one day, and went into a nice pub in town for a pint. I started flicking through the book, and started laughing. The barman asked me what I was laughing at, and I showed him. He took the book round the back, and I heard a huge guffaw of laughter from behind the door. The barman came out with another bloke, dressed in chef’s whites, who asked me where the book came from. I told him, and he went out. He returned after about fifteen minutes, showed me two copies of the book, and disappeared behind the bar. Shortly after, the barman came over and put another pint on my table. ”On the house” he said.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    Splendid Ian.

    I’ve now got a copy of The Annual now. I do have a copy of Discovering Scarfolk which is funny and horrific at the same time, a family lost in Scarfolk and how they are treated, many of the posters from the website appear. It brings back the mentality of the worst of 70’s turned upto 11 or those who have never seen it or the website; funny, offensive and disturbing all at once.


  16. Ian Luck says:

    Those PIF’s worked, though. As a kid I never flew a kite near pylons, mucked about in quarry lakes, or threw frisbees into substations, or wondered what a sewer was like inside.
    Not until I was about 18, that is. Then all bets were off. Still here, though, so I obviously wasn’t trying hard enough.

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