If you’re interested in architecture then the months of March and April 2012 are a great time to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, as it is holding architectural tours and a small exhibition to celebrate its 140th birthday. I visited this week and was particularly interested to learn more about the museum’s fascinating history and its many links to the Crystal Palace.
The main building at the Museum of Childhood actually started its life as a temporary home for the treasures that were being kept after the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park. Its construction was modelled on that of the Crystal Palace and it is one of the oldest surviving examples of a pre-fabricated iron-frame building. It turned out that the structure was leaky, fluctuated highly in temperature and the roof had almost rusted away by the time it was dismantled – in other words, not the ideal museum storage facility! It was also not popular with locals, whose nicknames for it included the Iron Museum and the Brompton Boilers.
When the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) was complete and the structure no longer required it was offered to any borough in London that would care to use it as a museum. Bethnal Green was the only area to put up its hand, so it was dismantled and transported eight miles to the east by horse and cart in the late 1860s. At this point an architect – James William Wild – was finally called in (the original structure was designed by engineers) to design the new red-brick exterior that was built around the iron structure. Wild had visions of a great learning hub in the east and designed a much larger complex including a school room and library, but like many architectural dreams it was never fully realised. You can see a drawing of how it would have appeared – complete with neo-classical columns – in the current exhibition.
Aware of the area’s working class population, the Bethnal Green Museum initially opened free of charge on three days a week from 10am to 10pm to allow working people the chance to visit. The original collection opened in 1872 and focused on food, animal products and French art from the 1700s, while the museum later hosted a number of important national collections – such as the National Portrait, Pitt Rivers and Wallace collections – while they sought permanent sites. The museum’s focus on children began to build slowly from the 1920s, and it officially became the Museum of Childhood in 1974 under the V&A directorship of Sir Roy Strong. Don’t miss its lovely collection of dolls houses on the top floor – I’m also a big fan of the Chinese rock gardens and model theatres on display.
Although a fair amount of the museum’s history is covered in the foyer exhibition, if you can make it to an architectural tour on a Thursday afternoon you will learn even more. For example, the fleur-de-lis iron railings around the museum also came from the Crystal Palace, while The Eagle Slayer statue by John Bell now found in the cafe area was originally exhibited at the Great Exhibition. A fountain from the 1862 International Exhibition also used to be housed in the front courtyard. This was removed in the 1930s as it was breaking down due to the pollution in the area – it was stored off-site for safe keeping and promptly ‘mislaid’. So if you stumble across a large majolica fountain in your travels you know where to return it to…
Architectural tours run on Thursdays in March and April from 3.30-4pm – no need to book, just turn up at the information desk.
The 140th Anniversary display will be on show until the 8th of July.