“ Edinburgh. „
The Museum of Childhood on Edinburgh's royal mile is an attraction I have visited many times over the years with groups of different ages, my last visit being in August 2011 with a family group with members ranging in age from 13 to 81. The museum is about half way up the Royal Mile, it is easy to miss the entrance as it is a small doorway set away from the road. It looks like a normal sized storefront from the outside but once inside it expands, tardis like, to cover several floors.
Each of the floors has a different theme, for example leisure time or outdoor play and there are literally hundreds of items in each exhibit. Toys range from board games and teddy bears to bicycles and huge pedal cars. There is something from every era here with some items being hundreds of years old and others from the past couple of decades. Each display case has a typewritten information board next to it so you can read more about the toys you are seeing but I found it difficult to find the information I wanted on these tiny type written sheets and I would have liked to have been able to read more about what I was looking at.
My favourite exhibition has always been the dolls with items on display ranging from a tiny hand crafted doll several hundred years old to a modern Barbie like figure. The dolls can look creepy all sitting together in glass cases and there are some who are so ugly that it is unbelievable any child ever wanted to play with them. The huge dolls houses from the Victorian era are truly beautiful and the level of workmanship which went into producing the tiny figures and furniture is amazing. Dolls are one of those toys which have appealed to girls in all eras and it is lovely to see such a diverse display.
There are a number of interactive exhibits but sadly on my last visit many of these were out of order. These include vintage gaming machines and end of the pier entertainments. There are places where the kids can dress up, play with dolls houses or draw pictures but in general I would say this is a museum which will appeal far more to adults than children.
We had problems with accessing the upper and lower floors on our last visit because my elderly aunt finds a lot of stairs too difficult to manage and the lifts were out of order. I am wondering if the fact that both the lifts and many exhibits were out of order is because of budget cuts meaning maintenance has been cut but I am hoping that I just happened to visit on a bad day.
There is a small gift shop inside the museum which sells a range of toys, books and souvenirs at reasonable prices with an emphasis on Scottish goods. I nearly bought a couple of Scots translations of classic children's books but realised I could probably buy them cheaper on Amazon! There is no café within the museum although there are chairs and benches dotted around if you want to have a rest and because it is on the Royal Mile there are plenty of places to have a drink and bite to eat within a minutes walk.
The beauty of the museum of childhood is that we all have been children at some point so there will be toys which you have either owned or wanted to own in the museum and you can hear adults excitedly reliving memories of their own childhoods triggered by something on display. I have taken visitors to Edinburgh to the Museum of Childhood on more than one occasion and they have always been delighted to take a walk down memory lane. Entry is free and it is very close to other attractions so it is worth popping in if you are in the area and seeing the museum for yourself.
Once called ?the noisiest museum in the world?, the Museum of Childhood is probably one of Edinburgh?s most popular cultural attractions if visitor figures are anything to go by ? which is not bad going for a city so crammed full of museums as galleries as Edinburgh is. I happened to be at the museum in late January doing some research, and rather enjoyed my visit there. Granted, I was not your average visitor in this sense, but by now I probably know more about the museum than you would ever want to read! The Museum of Childhood claims to be the oldest museum of its kind in the world. I say ?claims? because nobody is really quite sure if this is true, and as the curator says, they haven?t been contradicted yet! They are certainly the oldest museum of childhood in Britain, anyway (there are 3 others, at Bethnal Green, Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire and Strathpeffar in the Highlands). The museum traces it?s origins back to 1955, when a local councillor named Patrick Murray was a bit miffed to hear that 2 dolls once belonging to Queen Victoria had been sent to London for display, as there was nowhere suitable in Scotland to house them. Being on the city committee for museums, Murray used his influence to get two small cases allocated to him at Ladystairs House (now the Writers? Museum), where he put on a small exhibition of his own childhood memorabilia. The display proved popular ? so popular in fact, that when Murray put out requests on local radio for donations, items came flooding in. Within just 2 years, the collection had grown big enough for Murray to secure a move to a dedicated premises on the High Street, where the Museum of Childhood is still based today. Despite the fact that they no longer advertise for items, they still get ?an embarrassing number of things? offered to th
em from the public. The huge growth in the collection saw an extension to the museum in 1987 that increased display space by 70%, and there are plans in the pipeline for another expansion in the not too distant future. **What can I see there?** Well, my research so far suggests that around 90% of you would be expecting to see toys and games on display at the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood, and about half of you will be thinking that they have children?s costume. You would be right as well. The collection is very much centred around toys and there is a gallery of costume, but there are also displays (albeit small ones) about schooling, working children, babies, money boxes and children?s books, as well as a changing programme of temporary displays. It was always Patrick Murray?s intention that his museum should be ?about children and not for children?, but this was never a deterrent for visiting families. Things have changed a lot since Murray retired, and the museum took the opportunity of the expansion in 1987 to do a redisplay of material that makes it much more child friendly (such as lowering cases so that children could see into them and providing hands-on activities). Your arrival at the museum sees you stepping first of all into the shop ? yes, this could be seen as slightly commercialistic I know, but you can hardly blame them when the have become one of an increasing number of museums to be ?persuaded? to offer free entry. (I personally don?t believe that such a concession achieves anything in getting non-museum visitors through the door or encouraging ?socially excluded? people into museums. It just robs already cash-strapped institutions of a valuable source of income that is normally not replaced by the government agencies enforcing the abolition of entrance charges, which is why I always put something in donation boxes of such museums as this). I
will come back to talk about the shop a bit more later on, but for now I will move on to the galleries themselves. The Edinburgh Museum of Childhood has 5 galleries across 3 floors of a restored 18th century building. Unfortunately, many original features of the building have been lost, although you can get some idea of what it must once have been like from the gorgeous Georgian ceiling that has been saved in gallery 2. But to start at the beginning, gallery 1 introduces you to the museum and it?s collections with a display that is about the social history of childhood (working children, health and hygiene, babies, schooling, etc) on one side, and large toys (prams, bikes, pedal cars) on the other. This is an awful lot of information to cover in one not very large gallery and I couldn?t help but think that the two themes sat rather uncomfortably side by side; it is rather hard to fully appreciate the hardships of 19th century chimney sweeps when you are being overlooked by Alf, a cheerful carousel horse. This is not to say that the social history aspect of such a museum has to be morbid, just that I think it deserved a bit more attention than it presently gets. Not only is it an interesting subject ? after all, we have all been children - but there are plenty enough toys elsewhere in the museum. Moving upstairs to gallery 2, as well as that wonderful ceiling, you have puppets, train sets, doll?s houses and access to the temporary display area. Displays change between 3 and 5 times a year, and you can find out what is going to be on during your visit by contacting the museum (details at the end). When I was there, the display was on Christmas cards; previous exhibitions have been on subjects as diverse as children?s book illustrations and scrapbooks. Gallery 3 is for the doll and teddy bear enthusiasts amongst you ? it is a room full of them! I must admit that if
I was a casual visitor I might have been put off a bit by this, as I was never one for playing with dolls as a child, but my work demanded that I make a detailed examination of the displays. It was in doing this that I found something really quite exciting tucked away it the corner of the ?dolls from around the world? case. They had examples of archaeological dolls from both Ancient Egypt and Peru, things that are really quite rare to see in museums. Well OK, you might not be thrilled by this, but I thought it was a fascinating touch to exhibit ancient dolls next to the more modern ones ? it made my inner archaeologist very happy indeed! Now, the reason that the Museum of Childhood is so popular is that it has huge nostalgia value. Anyone who has been a child in the 1980s or earlier will ? and I guarantee this ? see something in this museum that triggers them to say ?I remember those!? or ?I had of them!? It was in gallery 4 that I had such an epiphany. This gallery has a range of items that fit loosely into the definition of hobbies; sports kit, spinning tops, samplers, guide and scouts memorabilia and children?s books to name but a few. So what did I see amongst all that stuff that triggered this reaction? It was the Space Invaders arcade machine (sadly out of operation) and the Robertson marmalade badges that I collected as a child (and probably still have somewhere, actually). He he, child of the 80s, me! Last of all up on the top floor is gallery 5 ? which, if you have been paying attention so far, you will know is the costume gallery I mentioned earlier. This is not the biggest or the most impressive costume gallery the world I must admit. It basically has four dioramas (or ?sets?) with costumed figures in them; a 1930s schoolroom, a fancy dress party; a Victorian street scene and an Edw
ardian nursery. Plenty of information is provided on booklets in front of each scene, which are quite interesting and detailed, but probably not terribly useful if the museum is busy, as only one person at a time can actually get to them. Despite the obvious money that has been lavished in providing the set dressing of this gallery, I think this was probably the least enjoyable one for me. **What about the visitor facilities?** Despite being quite a sizeable museum, the visitor facilities at the Museum of Childhood aren?t brilliant. The shop is colourful (and apparently quite successful at providing an income) but tends to sell things that either aren?t terribly relevant or that you can get elsewhere. Other than the guidebook (£2.50 and a bit out of date) I could see nothing specific to the museum that would make a good souvenir of your visit. Toilets are up on gallery 4 and are well signposted and clean, but pretty cramped and inadequate ? and because they lead straight off a gallery, queues in peak season doubtless cause problems up there with the movement of visitors around the displays. There is no café available on site (which was a bit of a let down) but there is plenty of seating around the museum. For disabled visitors, access is provided from the ground floor to galleries 2 and 3 via a lift; unfortunately it is stair-only access to galleries 4 and 5. It is therefore possible to get around the most of the displays if you are disabled (although narrow passages between cases may make this a bit difficult when the museum is busy). However, the lift has to be operated by an attendant and as the disabled toilet is in the basement (where there are no displays) then an escort is needed to that as well. Not a perfect situation, but the low child-friendly cases mean that the displays can be enjoyed by visitors in wheelchairs at least. Information about the museum can als
o be provided in large-print and Braille editions on request (although I don?t know how much this covers). **My opinion** It is easy to see just why the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood is so popular with adults and children alike ? it is a ?feel good? museum of gentle nostalgia that is suitable for all ages. The nearest this museum gets to being controversial is not opening on Sundays! Although the style of interpretation does feel quite old fashioned (little has changed since the redesign of 1987) and I could easily sit here all day and criticise it (many text panels are too low down and you get backache from bending if you want to read them all?) I think it does not detract too much from the artefacts, which after all is what people have come to the museum for. Who cares that the display is dull and unimaginative when you have just seen a toy identical to something you loved and cherished when you were 8 years old? I would suggest that you are better timing your visit outside of July and August if possible, as apparently it gets far too busy for visitors to fully appreciate the displays at this time of year. January was a great time to go though; I virtually had the place to myself. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement in both the exhibitions and the provision for visitors, but I feel I do have to recommend the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood. It is hard not to like the place, even as a cynical and critical museums studies student! J **Details** Directions ? The Edinburgh Museum of Childhood is at 42 High Street, which is about midway along the Royal Mile (the road linking Holyroodhouse with Edinburgh Castle). Driving is impossible and parking non-existent, but it makes a very scenic walk. I didn?t notice any signposts to the museum, but it is marked
on all tourist maps of the city and you cannot miss it if you are walking down the Royal Mile; it is directly opposite John Knox?s House. Opening Hours ? Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, throughout the year. Sundays, noon to 5pm, during July and August. Entrance Price ? Free (although a donation is requested) Contact Details ? Phone (0131) 529 4142. Email: email@example.com