European visions of childhood


European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 October 1998



Frayling, C. and Laurence, S. (1998), "European visions of childhood", European Business Review, Vol. 98 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited

European visions of childhood

European visions of childhood

Christopher Frayling and Sue Laurence

In 1922 a dignified middle-aged man with a shock of white hair stepped out of the taxi into a dirty, busy street full of children and street traders yelling their wares. The man was dressed impeccably in a Homburg hat, a double breasted coat and elegant shoes that looked ill-prepared for the streets strewn with fish bones and squashed fruit which hungry dogs were sniffing as they scavenged for food.This man was called Arthur Sabin and his destination was the Bethnal Green Museum in London's East End where he had just been appointed curator by Sir Cecil Harcourt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.

The National Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green begins with Arthur Sabin, although the history of the museum goes back much earlier.When he arrived Bethnal Green housed a miscellany of European fine art and furniture, Lord Curzon's Eastern works of art, a curious collection of animal and food products from the 1851 Great Exhibition as well as examples of local East End trades, consisting of the shoe and silk weaving industries. The first task he set himself was to re-house the food and animal product collection. The former consisted of such bizarre displays as an example of a convict's diet and the latter included a Japanese rope of human hair 700 feet long and weighing 5 cwt. Apart from tidying up the collection, Arthur Sabin organised many painting and sculpture exhibitions with working men's clubs in the East End. In addition, he used the private printing press he owned at the back of the museum to publish his poetry, which was his private passion.

Early on, Arthur Sabin wanted to develop a children's Palace of Culture mirroring the People's Palace that had been built in the East End in 1886. This, he anticipated, would consist of toys which many of the local population would never have seen, let alone played with. Sabin set about the task of amassing a toy collection by cultivating important social contacts who were also collectors of toys. One of these was Mrs Greg who came from a rich Manchester cotton manufacturer's family and gave doll's houses and toys over a period of many years. Another was Queen Mary, who donated one of her own doll's houses that she had played with. She gave many toys to the museum including an extraordinary award-winning wax doll called Princess Daisy with an extensive layette that had earlier been part of the Amsterdam International Exhibition of 1895 and had drawn thousands of visitors. Judging by her frequent visits to the Bethnal Green Museum, Sabin obviously got on famously with Queen Mary and on one occasion she even brought her two grandchildren, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, to view the exhibits, while also providing an important photo-opportunity for the museum.

However, while Sabin was skilful at charming the well-connected, he was extraordinarily committed to the idea of using the museum as a vehicle for educating children. Sabin quietly started to lobby the London County Council to provide teachers for the museum and in 1923 set up a children's section which consisted of a school room in a portion of the gallery of the museum. Correspondence in The Times in 1923 about the role of children in museums suggests that Sabin received wholehearted support from his superior, the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Cecil Harcourt. The latter contributed to this correspondence by strongly rejecting claims that children were a nuisance in museums and, moreover, argued that they should be allowed to enter museums unaccompanied by adults if they so wished since, he argued, museum visiting should not be treated as a penance for the child. Harcourt then went on to invoke the example of Bethnal Green Museum as successfully targeting the child.

Sabin set to work putting all the paintings in the museum at eye-level for children and furnishing his children's gallery with doll's house acquisitions. By 1938 the toy collection had developed to include a miniature room setting, doll's furniture and tea-sets, model ships and puppets and a few children's books. By the time Sabin's children's section in the Bethnal Green museum was well established by the 1930s, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt, two important pioneers in the field of educational toys, had spent a whole year travelling throughout Europe and Eastern Europe to look at different aspects of design for children. This inspired them to start a mail order business in instructive toys which operated from premises they shared with the Froebel Institute. Having gauged that there was clearly a market for their toys, they set up a toy store in Wigmore Street, designed by the modernist architect, Erno Goldfinger.While there is no evidence that Paul and Marjorie Abbatt ever met Sabin they were united in their the goal of creating a more congenial culture for children to live in, where they would be exposed to good design and beautiful things at an early age. Interestingly, Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood now houses the Marjorie Abbatt archive, so that the museum is benefiting from the fruits of their efforts posthumously.

After the Second World War, Montague Weekley took over from Arthur Sabin at Bethnal Green but was inititally forced on the defensive and had to struggle hard to return the museum to normality after it had been converted during the war into a canteen. Weekley was succeeded by Elizabeth Aslin, a specialist in art nouveau. When Sir Roy Strong became Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the parent body of Bethnal Green Museum, in the 1970s he decided to devote Bethnal Green entirely to childhood although he faced considerable opposition to this idea from many of his colleagues. However, the gradual accummulation of childhood objects at Bethnal Green, as a result of Sabin's vision, and the recognition that the history of childhood had become a highly regarded academic subject in Europe and the USA in particular, provided reinforcement to Strong's ideas. The French historian Philippe Ariès' seminal book Centuries of Childhood had been published in 1962 and he had used children's costume, paintings, games and school records to build up his pioneering study of children's lives from medieval times to the Victorian period. In 1974 Roy Strong re-launched the Museum as a museum of childhood and since then the collection has grown and developed. It now includes an extraordinary European collection of 80,000 children's books donated by a Dutch couple called the Reniers and continues to acquire toys, children's costume and nursery antiques, mainly European in scope, from the sixteenth century to the present.

History of childhood collections

There are surprisingly few museums of childhood in Britain. Apart from Bethnal Green there is a museum of Childhood in Edinburgh that was founded in 1955 and the National Trust Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, and a handful in Europe. Traditional toy museums are much more common throughout Europe and there are a number of important German toy museums, including the Deutsches Spielzeugmuseum in Sonneberg, Germany and the Dresden Landesmuseum für Sachsische Volkskunst. In France two important toy collections are in the Département des Jouets in the Museé des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and the Museé des Jouets at Poissy, but there are many more toy museums throughout France. In Britain, the London Toy and Model Museum in Paddington, London, unlike Bethnal Green and Edinburgh, focuses exclusively on toys. What is key to toy and childhood collections is that without the rest of Europe these collections would be considerably diminished and impoverished, since Germany in particular was crucial to the toy trade in Britain and has been pre-eminent in the field of toy production until the USA and more recently the Far East led the field in the twentieth century.

One type of Museum that has proved crucial in preserving many childhood artefacts is the Open Air Museum primarily geared to preserving folk traditions of the national heritage of the countries concerned. This type of museum was first founded in Scandinavia around the end of the nineteenth century with many imitators emerging in the USA from the late 1940s, such as the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. There are also examples in Europe as well such as the Open Air Museum in Kommern, Germany, which was founded in 1958 and which hosted the first international symposium on the interpretation of childhood in museums in1993. Kommern has a very important childhood collection supplemented by a large toy collection that was given to the museum in 1989. The Bokrijk Open-Air Museum in Belgium, like the German example, was set up around the same time, in 1953 and, while its main aim was to preserve Flemish traditions, it is an extraordinarily good example of a museum which is keeping alive the material culture of childhood and some of its lost traditions. The Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris set up in 1966 is also very important for documenting French regional traditions of family life and child care but sadly, in spite of interesting collections, has none of the vitality of the open air museums, through under funding.

The history of children's museums

While in many senses Europe could be said to be the home of childhood collections since the first collections sprang from Europe, children's museums are in many respects an American concept. The Brooklyn Children's museum for example opened as early as 1899 followed by Boston, Detroit and Minneapolis. In 1901 the Smithsonian introduced a Children's Room where display cases were at a height that children could look in, Latin labels were abolished, and the English simplified for easy reading by children. Children's museums still thrive in the USA but sadly where childhood collections exist as in the case of the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in Rochester New York there has been little attempt to make the superb toy and doll collection accessible. Ironically they have created a children's museum which is fairly humdrum precisely because they have ignored their most important assets, the toy and doll collections. After the National Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, the Woodbury Strong childhood collection is arguably the most impressive in terms of breadth and sheer size but it has been relegated to a back seat of what is in effect a children's museum which bears no relation to the objects which in their day were touched, worn, used and played with.

By 1931 the Science Museum in London had set up a children's gallery and the London County Council had at last taken heed of Sabin's earlier lobbying and ten years later had appointed a museums liaison officer and started to develop the educational role of the Horniman and Geffrye museums in London. Since then Bethnal Green's educational role has also developed significantly. In the late 1980s Halifax in England opened the first children's Museum called "Eureka" which saw its role as explaining the world through discovery as opposed to more conventional didactic techniques. There have also been a proliferation of children's museums thoroughout Europe which have taken American science museums as their model.

There are many lessons to be learned from traditional toy and childhood museums and the more recent children's museum. At the National Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green there is a strong commitment to both strengthening and extending the collections to embrace the material culture of childhood and using interactivity to serve rather than dictate the collection. It is a museum in two senses: a museum about childhood which also aims to appeal to children; a fascinating, and not always easy, combination.

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