Last Wednesday, I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green area.
This is not a simply a children’s museum, though many thousands of children visit here each year. This museum houses the British “national collection of childhood-related objects and artifacts.” The extensive array ranges from the 1600s to modern times.
As you enter the exhibit area, the signage includes this quote from Plato:
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
So, Plato isn’t just talking about children here? He was implying that adults should be observed playing too? Those Greeks.
It would be a hardened and steely adult who would not feel the pull towards play when viewing this collection. No matter what age you are, you will see items that remind you of toys and games you played with as a child, and the rest will make you envious of the children who played with them before they became museum pieces.
Isn’t that writers and illustrators of children’s books are supposed to be able to do – access the emotions and wonderment of being a child? This museum would be a worthwhile field trip for any of us.
(Troll dolls are what I played with as a child. I spent many hours making clothes for them and styling their luxurious hair.)
Viewing the collection as an illustrator, it was fascinating to see the progression of imagery through time and across cultures.
The Game of Goose, Italian, 1750.
Soft toy owl, designed by Kristin Baybars for Ostrobogulous, England, 1964.
My favorite part of the exhibit was the Optical Toys section. Some of these toys use special visual effects – tricks of the eye – to make two-dimensional pictures appear to be three-dimensional. Others make pictures move, or appear to move.
Below are various views of a teleorama from Germany, circa 1800-1820. I think making a teleorama of sorts could be a fun project to do with children. If I could figure out the telegraphing part.
Magic lantern slides, 1890 – 1900. Made in Germany by Gebrüder Bing & Planck.
Kaleidoscopic lantern slides, 1850-80. Using a double rackwork mechanism, these slides show a changing pattern of colors by turning a handle.
Disks for a Phenakistiscope from the late 1800s.
By looking through slits into a mirror while spinning the disk of a Praxinoscope, the pictures appear to move.
These and other such moving-picture toys led to the invention of modern moving-picture technologies,
which then led to the invention of toys like the Movie Maker, 1960-1970, made by the Arnold Arnold Toy Company, USA;
the Star Wars Slide Projector set;
and, eventually, computer games.
And then there were the toys that really do move, like the amazing automata of the French company Roullet et Decamps, 1870-1880.
This cat emerges from the hat, while sticking out its tongue to the sound of a music box.
This rabbit rises out of his cabbage while wiggling his ears and munching.
This French monkey musician, 1870-80, plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunes. This wasn’t a toy for children. Adults got to play with this one.
Though far less elaborate in mechanism or decoration, this hand-carved and hand-painted wooden cuckoo on wheels is also beautiful. Pressing down on the bird’s tail makes the white-leather bellows create bird-like noises. A traditional toy from Germany, circa 1900.
This ‘Lajkonik’ horseman is from Poland, 1958. When pulled along, a wire swings the horseman’s club.
A clockwork Russian bear plays music on it’s balalaika.
A Chinese wind-up monkey, circa 1970.
Japanese clockwork bug that jumps around when wound, circa 1950-70.
1940s tin plate merrymakers. The Marx Company, New York.
Lots of robotics. Even some robots.
Of course, an exhibit of toys that move must include toy cars.
The Hillman Minx battery operated car, made in the 1960s in England by the Tri-ang company.
The Royal Prince pedal car, also by Tri-ang, England, 1930.
The sleek Blanche et Noir, made in France by Vilac, 1989.
And other vehicles with wheels.
These bikes were made in Africa from scrap wire, 1980 – 1983.
Puppets are moving toys that have taken to the stage.
The Yellow Dwarf theatre, 1868; a theatre made for one family and designed to perform one play, The Yellow Dwarf. The story comes from fairy tales published in France in 1697 by the Clountess D’Aulnoy.
A Saint George and the Dragon puppet, circa 1920-30.
A shadow puppet theatre, 1850s.
And finally, one more toy that moves, as if by magic. England, 1963 – 70.
What I like so much about all the toys that move, or seem to move, or move with us, is the ingenuity and inventiveness involved on the part of the creator. The artists and craftspeople that invented these toys knew how to access their childlike imaginations to fill our hearts with wonder, which is something children, and adults, will always be drawn to.
Maybe creativity is really just another form of play. If so, it’s something I never want to grow out of.