Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Wander walking through London: Museum of Childhood and Tate Modern

Last Thursday after dropping off Herm's work key in the cool WeWork building, I wandered around the commercial area for a bit (saw part of the old London Wall too!) before moving on to the V&A Museum of Childhood.

When Gregorio reminded me the other week that all of London's museums are free (how had I forgotten this fact?), I started browsing online to pick one or two to visit. My first week alone I went and saw "Book of Mormon," so I figured one musical and one or two museums was enough London entertainment/tourism to try and fit in for this particular stay. You know me, I like to take it slow and have fewer plans. (Also, these have still been regular work weeks for me, so that too.)

While doing my quick online research, the V&A Museum of Childhood jumped out as interesting, in that it wasn't a children's museum (aka just for kids to play around), but rather a museum of children's toys over the last century or so. That would be neat, right?

V&A Museum of Childhood

Luckily my instincts hadn't failed me; I really enjoyed this museum, and highly recommend it to anyone living in or visiting London.

I have to admit, it felt a bit strange to walk through the front doors (above) and not see a front counter, security or anything of that nature. After briefly checking out the artwork in the entryway lobby, I walked through the second set of doors.

There was a bustling café/gift shop in the center of the ground floor, and I saw a small set of stairs to my right, leading to some exhibits half a floor up. I cautiously went up in that direction, still unsure if I had somehow missed a ticket booth or something. (I've been to plenty of free museums before which still require ticketing.)

Nope, I was in. This was it.

And isn't that how public museums should be? A space with open doors, which you can enter and immediately begin to explore to learn. No lines, no metal detectors, no lockers for bags, no tickets. It's a simple concept, but I very much appreciated what the city of London was—and had been—offering.

So the exhibits ran along the outer "U" of the room, from which you could look over the railing down to the center.

The toys were exhibited in glass cabinets, everything beautifully labeled with interesting bits of information, plus some yellow "Think..." cards every now and then, which were written in language that children could understand.

I liked how the toys were categorized. For example, "Pushed and pulled by nature" (toys that move by wind, air, steam, and heat). Here are a few items from the "Moving and changing pictures" display:

Also under the "Look See" umbrella were flicker books, which upon seeing them, sparked a memory that I'm pretty sure one of my grandparents had one of these, maybe Grandpa Wayne.

 Among "Moved by gravity" were these ladder toys:

And sand toys, which I'd never seen before. Here's what the slip of paper said:
Sand toys, about 1860 
When these toys are turned upside-down, gravity pulls the sand down, turning a wheel. This spins a rod attached to the figures, making them appear to dance. Made in France.

I really wanted to see one in action, but alas, they were behind a glass window.

Here were a few of the other toys I saw:

Pretty sure a set of grandparents had this doll house above.

There were some modern toys included in the displays too, making the exhibits fun for all ages to look at.

Well, actually, even there hadn't been any of "today's toys" in the exhibits, it was still a really cool museum for parents and kids (and people of any age without kids!). I saw lots of kids excited to see their parents' favorite toys.

We definitely had this one (below) as kids, right?

This next one I'd never seen before, but think I would have loved it!

Scattered among the glass display cases were some interactive areas where kids could touch and play.

On Their Own: Britain's Child Migrants

On the top floor, there was an excellent exhibit (on display from October 24, 2015 to June 10, 2016) called "On Their Own: Britain's Child Migrants."

Here's a quick summary from the museum's site:
An exhibition telling the heart-breaking true stories of Britain’s child migrants who were sent to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries between 1869 and 1970. An estimated 100,000 British children were sent overseas by migration schemes, which were run by a partnership of charities, religious organisations and governments, and claimed to offer boys and girls the opportunity of a better life in Britain’s Empire overseas. Many migrants never saw their homes or their families again.

Many of the children were lied to by the charities and religious organizations, and told their parents had died (when in fact, they hadn't). Brothers and sisters were separated, many never to see each other again.

It was kind of up to chance whether these children landed in good or bad hands. Devastatingly, an awful lot of these kids suffered psychological, physical and some even sexual abuse from their "caretakers." Some were put to work on farms with other child migrants, which was essentially child labor. It was pretty shocking how long the child migration schemes went on for, and how easily this tainted part of Britain's history had been buried.

Here's Kevin Rudd's public apology (Australia) in 2009 to the child migrants.

Here's the public apology from the British Prime Minister in 2010 to the child migrants.

If you're curious to learn more about what it was actually like for these kids, here's a ~40 minute movie of audio (with pictures) from interviews with 19 former Western Australia child migrants.

The subject matter and first-hand stories (hand-written letters from the children, photography, personal items) made this a very moving exhibit.

What I especially loved, and have never seen before in a museum, was that there was a "Reflection Space" at the end.

On the wall which is seen above on the right, there were blank notecards available to write a private message to put in the slot, or you could write a message to share, and leave it up on any of those shelves.

The sign said:
This is a place where you can leave
private thoughts, messages or memories. 
There may be someone you want to
remember whose life was affected by
child migration. 
Or by similar issues explored
in the exhibition. 
Or just to offer some thoughts or
responses personal to you.

I loved that they not only gave us a calm space and time to reflect, but also the opportunity to share our thoughts with one another. Not later, online, but right here, right now, with pencil and paper.

What: V&A Museum of Childhood
Where: Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA
Underground: Bethnal Green (Central Line, Zone 2)
Hours: 10:00 - 17:45, open daily.
Closed: December 24, 25, 26 and January 1
Cost: Free!

Just to help orient you for the wandering that's about to ensue, here's where I was when I left the museum:

I've marked Brixton at the bottom of the map, my home base, and underlined a few of the bigger landmarks. I'm up there in the top right, marked in red.

I remembered that the other museum I had wanted to see (but hadn't planned on hitting up that same day) was on the south side of the river, perhaps near the London Bridge or Tower Bridge. It was a contemporary art museum, but I couldn't remember the name. It started with a "T," I was sure, and thought it had four letters. I'd recognize the name if I saw it, that was certain.

Since it was such a lovely day, and I had nowhere to be, I thought I'd try and walk to this "T" museum, whose name and address I didn't know. (Are you doubting my skills? C'mon, have some faith in me!)

Without a map in hand, I knew I had to head south to hit the river, so off I went. I actually didn't take any pictures for most of the walk; I was just enjoying it, adjusting my direction every now and then based on where I thought I needed to go. I'd look at street signs and bus maps for small clues.

I passed through some clearly poorer, multicultural, Muslim-heavy neighborhoods for most of my walk. (Wikipedia says in Shadwell, 46.7% of the residents identified as Muslim. 52.9% were born in the UK, and 20.8% in Bangladesh.)

And then finally, maybe 50 minutes later, I came across my first signs of water.

It wasn't the river; what I'd stumbled upon were the St. Katharine Docks. This walkway was beautifully decorated with work from an artist (I didn't write down the name):

And on the other side of that passageway...

Tower Bridge! I'd seen the bridge on my first visit to London in 2014, though it had been cold and rainy that time.

So I walked up the stairs to street-level and then crossed the bridge to the south side. The museum I was looking for wasn't in that area, so I figured it must be near London Bridge. On the way I stopped at the Post to mail a letter and buy stamps for the first half of #write_on (April is National Letter Writing Month), and bought a second lunch from Pret.

When I got closer to London Bridge, my mystery museum was now near enough to show up on the Legible London signs throughout the city: Tate Modern! It was a little ways past the London Bridge actually, on the other side of Shakespeare's Globe theater.

I ate my sandwich outside, watching passersby and the river, before entering the museum.

Tate Modern

Like the V&A Museum of Childhood, I simply walked through the front doors and was in. There were some exhibits which required a paid entry ticket, so I just didn't go in those.

It was a quicker visit for me, maybe even just 45 minutes, as I was getting tired from the day and a bit overwhelmed/frustrated with all of the art I didn't understand.

I did like the colors in this piece:

But then take a look at this exhibit:

The metal pieces are car bumpers, and all that that black rope? It's real human hair.


So that was all supposed to be very symbolic, and there was a little blurb about it posted on the wall, but I just don't understand how much of the art I saw ended up in this museum to begin with.

I'll spare you from an art rant with no thought, and leave you with practical information about visiting this museum. I still recommend visiting if you're in the area, to feast your eyes on something new and different.

What: Tate Modern
Where: Bankside, London SE1 9TG
Underground: Southwark (Jubilee Line), Blackfriars (District and Circle Lines), St. Pauls (Central Line)
Hours: 10:00-16:00 Sunday to Thursday, 10:00-22:00 Friday to Saturday
Cost: Free (except special exhibits)

Earlier in the day I'd thought I might try walking home to Brixton, again just using my sense of direction, but by this time it was a bit after five and I was tired. After just missing the bus and seeing how slow traffic was moving, I opted for the underground and returned home to Brixton around six. My feet and legs were happily sore from all of the walking; I slept well that night!
• • •


  1. The flipbook you're thinking of was one of a bowling ball knocking down pins, right? I remember that.

    1. Yeah, that's the one I remember.

    2. I'm pretty sure I have it still, in a box back home.

    3. Woah, how'd it fall into your hands? ;)