Sunday 6 March 2011

From the archives: Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green

This Museum's current exhibition is Food, Glorious Food: a choice which echoes its earliest days, as I explain below.

Behind its new facade, the Museum of Childhood's building is an interesting piece of Victoriana in its own right. Its iron frame was originally part of the V&A's first, temporary building in South Kensington, and moved to the East End in 1866 to house a trade museum. The ground was purchased using subscriptions from local residents; the iron frame was filled in with red brick and panels illustrating various trades.

Inside, the marble mosaic 'fish scale' floor was made by women from Woking Gaol . The full title of the gaol was the 'Woking Invalid Convict Prison', and it was designed to house those suffering from mental or physical disabilities. The prison had a specialist Mosaics Department whose women earned 1s 2d a day breaking marble for the mosaics. As well as the Bethnal Green floor and work in South Kensington, they also provided a mosaic floor for the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

Bethnal Green Museum was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1872, and proved a great success with 1.5 million visitors in the first year. Permanent collections of food, animal products and French art combined with temporary visits by the Wallace, National Portrait and Pitt Rivers collections. The food collection had moved from the main museum and was 'arranged with the express object of teaching the nature and sources of food, representing the chemical composition of the various substances used as food, and the natural sources from which they have been obtained.' Admission to all this was free every day except Wednesday.

However, in the 1920s director Arthur Knowles Sabin began to shift the focus towards children, with exhibits and activities designed for them and the development of a children's collection. This eventually led to the Bethnal Green Museum's transformation in 1974 into the Museum of Childhood.


Hels said...

How wonderful that the iron frame was originally part of the V&A's first South Kensington site in the 1860s. Imagine the excitement when Bethnal Green Museum was opened by the royals in 1872. It must have felt like the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 all over again. And it is still intact!

I am not urgently interested in the children's contents of the Museum, but I DO want to see the structure.

CarolineLD said...

I do agree - the structure interests me more than the contents. Having said that, there are some very nice exhibits inside (especially if you can go when there aren't too many children...)