Museum of Childhood (Victoria & Albert Museum)


Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, E2 9PA


020-8983 5200



Opening times:

Mon-Fri 10:00-17:45

How to get there:

Tube: Bethnal Green

Entry fee:


Additional information:

Café and shop

The Museum of Childhood, a branch of the V&A, opened in 1872 as the Bethnal Green Museum, satisfying a desire first raised in 1851, in the wake of the Great Exhibition, to establish a museum in the East End to serve a less privileged part of London. The framework of the building is in fact a section of the Iron Building erected in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was then known. The Iron Building was a prefabricated structure consisting of an iron frame clad externally with corrugated metal. It was a problematic building which leaked when it rained, and its three spans were quickly nicknamed the Brompton Boilers. In 1866 it was partially dismantled and re-erected in Bethnal Green, but with an outer façade of red brick designed by J.W. Wild. A series of mosaic panels decorate its two long sides, scenes representing Agriculture (e.g. Ploughing, Harvesting, Sheep Shearing) on one side, Art and Science on the other, all to the designs of Frank Moody. They were made by female students of the South Kensington Museum Mosaic Class under the supervision of Minton’s. Inside, the museum reveals its delicate iron framework, its spacious central hall overlooked on either side by upper-level balconies. The mosaic floor was laid by female prisoners. Bethnal Green originally displayed the collection of Animal and Food Products transferred from South Kensington; its focus on childhood and children dates only from the 1920s when its Keeper, Arthur Sabin, encouraged school visits and actively collected material relating to childhood. In 1974 the museum was officially redefined and is now recognised as the National Collection of Childhood.

The Collection
The museum has one of the largest and oldest collections of children’s toys, spanning 400 years of childhood. It has over 1,400 dolls, beginning with a fine wooden doll of about 1680. There are toy soldiers, teddy bears and board games including some of the first jigsaw puzzles (giant Snakes and Ladders can be played in the Games Area). Its collection of dolls’ houses is internationally famous and includes the Nuremberg dolls’ house of about 1673; ‘Mrs Bryant’s Pleasure’, with fine Victorian miniature furniture; and ‘Whiteladies’, a Modernist house. There is a collection of puppets, both British (notably Punch and Judy) and international (examples from Germany and Central Europe, India, China, Japan etc.) and a collection of toy theatres including an 18th-century Venetian marionette theatre. The recently re-displayed Mezzanine Galleries show the museum’s collection of moving toys: a magnificent rocking horse (which can be ridden), train sets, humming tops and gravity-powered cars. Many can be activated by visitors, but those that cannot can be seen in motion at computer terminals.

On the top floor are galleries concentrating on the social history of childhood, embracing topics such as 17th-century childbirth, and growing up throughout the ages. Nursery furniture is on display as well as the museum’s excellent collection of children’s clothes, which includes the entire wardrobe (c. 1840) of Henrietta Byron.

As well as its permanent collection and activities for children (in addition to those mentioned above, there is a sand pit and dressing-up area), the museum also has a programme of temporary exhibitions focusing on childhood, the history of toys and children’s authors such as Beatrix Potter.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

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