14 May 2008

Families & Children: Edinburgh's Museum of Childhood

By Sandra Schwab

When you're walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, it's easy to pass by the Museum of Childhood without ever noticing it: It's a rather nondescript house, not much different from all the other houses next to it. The golden sign depicting children in old-fashioned clothes might catch your eye, though, and make you curious enough to take a peek inside what seems to be a tiny shop. Right, but the letters above the door say "Museum of Childhood", so you venture beyond the shop into a room full of display cases with old, old toys.

There's a snake whose body is made of postage stamps that have been threaded on a piece of string at some time in the 1890s. And right next to it is the Moss Man, a Russian doll made from wood and dried moss. He doesn't have any eyes, but his nose is carved out of wood, and it's prominent enough to lend him stern Viking features. Sure enough, Mr. Moss Man swings his tiny sword in a rather threatening manner. Despite his antics, the Flemish teething doll of 1865 smiles serenely on. A human tooth is pinned to its body and was supposed to absorb the pain suffered by the teething child.

Just when you're about to lean forward to take a closer look, a booming noise starts in the far corner of the room, making you almost jump out of your skin. Soon the sounds of a small orchestra -- piano, drums, cymbals, and what not -- reverberate in the room. And it's loud. Very loud. The source? An orchestra nickelodeon. Insert 50p to play tune:

And there, at the back of the room, another surprise awaits you: There's a door that leads to a staircase. A huge staircase. And that's when you start to realise that this is no itty-bitty tiny museum. It extends beyond the building on the Royal Mile, and contains five large galleries crammed full of childhood treasures from the past and the present: there are doll houses, toy theatres, toy trains, toy zoos, indoor games, outdoor games, soft toys (complete with "button in the ear" Steiff animals), and dolls of all materials and sizes. Dolls made of china, of wood, of wax, or of bones, one made from a clay pipe; another made from shoe. There's a Shirley Temple doll, a Dr. Doolittle doll, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Rapunzel and the witch, costume dolls, soldier and sailor dolls and even a 3-in-1 doll consisting of Little Red Riding Hood, her grannie, and the wolf.

(Up here, in the third gallery, you can still hear that orchestra nickelodeon--as I've told you: It's really loud!)

The Museum of Childhood is a truly fascinating place and was once described as the noisiest museum in the world (well, yes, thanks to the aforementioned nickelodeon, no doubt! *g*). It was conceived by a local town councillor in the 1950s and was the first museum of its kind. Apart from the permanent exhibitions, it also hosts special events and temporary exhibitions, so there's always something new to discover.

And what was my favourite object in the Museum of Childhood? An old doll house which was started when the child was six years old. Over the years things were added to it, until it held over 3000 accessories and had both electric light and running water (!!!). But what I found most touching about it was the story of its inhabitants:
The Mistress of the House is Mrs Brett, who has three husbands. The first one suddenly disappeared. When he reappeared he had already been displaced and thus was made gardener (later died of broken heart). After having lost both legs in an accident, husband No. 2 became chauffeur. Now Mrs Brett lives happily with husband No. 3.