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I went to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood for the first time on Friday. I had always thought it would be interesting to see all the childhood-related objects collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum in one place, but I had never got round to visiting. The objects date from the 1600s to the present day and most of the exhibits are toys, with a section containing objects associated with home life and child upbringing.

The Museum of Childhood

The first thing you notice about the museum is its design. It consists of a large open space containing the café and shop, with all of the exhibits positioned around the centre. This makes it a great place to visit with young children as its impossible to get lost. There were many very young children there when I visited and it seemed to me that they were all really enjoying themselves.

Most of the objects on display are in glass cases with some interactive screens and activities and areas for children to play. I saw the kids interacting really well with everything and showing a real interest in the objects. Parents were also walking around showing their children the toys they used to play with when they were young.

As well as the 20th-century nostalgia available, there are plenty of amazing objects from earlier centuries. On one side of the museum, the toys are arranged by the technology behind them – so for example, clockwork, magnets, springs etc. The section for optical toys was interesting as it ranged from nineteenth-century zoetropes to the Megadrive, Xbox and Playstation.

These photographs are of a large 3-dimensional theatre made from layers of card, with different sections showing different scenes. It was made by  Martin Engelbrecht in around 1721, who was famous for his illustrations of children’s books. This section also has some good interactive screens which show different toys with videos of how they work and explanations of their mechanisms. They even have x-rays so you can see how the mechanism is arranged inside the toys.

On the other side of the museum, the toys are arranged into categories like soft toys, dolls, building and making etc. They have some wonderful dolls houses and dolls including the first version of the Barbie doll from 1959. Some of the dolls and soft toys were very familiar to me, while others I had never heard of but were apparently very famous.

Soft toys Pip, Squeak and Wilfred with 1939 annual.

Soft toys Pip, Squeak and Wilfred with 1939 annual.

For example, above are soft toy versions of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred from the 1930s. These characters were from a long-running cartoon published in the Daily Mirror from 1919 to 1956. They were devised by Bertram Lamb and drawn until 1939 by Austin Bowen Payne. The cartoon was incredibly popular and successful, spawning dedicated newspaper supplements, annuals like the one pictured above and even in 1921 twenty-five  silent animated cartoons.

On of my favourite sections is about the history of children making toys and objects of their own, as I was obsessed with craft as a child. Pictured below is a paper mache duck and a campfire made from matches and bottle tops, both made by a three-year-old boy called Stephen, born in 1957. There is also a tank made by an eight-year-old in 1942 and some animal drawings created between 1890 and 1900. Looking at these objects really makes you realise how children from every era are just the same, as it is impossible to tell the difference between a child’s creation from 100 years ago and one today.

Some other interesting exhibits include dolls from the eighteenth-century to today. You can see how Barbie’s figure developed over the course of the last 50 years, but even more startling is the shape of older dolls, such as the 1720 doll pictured below. Also, while Barbie is usually the doll accused of being damaging to young girls, I was shocked to see how Sindy’s looks have changed since her introduction in 1963. Sindy had always been a child-like doll in relatively casual childish clothing, however her latest incarnations have made her older, wearing more revealing clothing.

The museum also contains sections on the history of the upbringing of young children, with objects relating to washing, feeding and learning. They have a large case showing the development of children’s clothing between the eighteenth century and today.

At the moment they also have an exhibition called War Games, which runs until 9th March 2014. This exhibition shows the various action and strategy war-related games children have played of the years, and also links the history of these toys to the actual history of warfare of the last 100 years. It ends by making the link to science fiction and asking visitors whether they think war-related children’s games are morally right.

The museum is really worth a visit, with children or without, and it isn’t so enormous that you can’t see everything in a few hours. It’s located just down the road from Bethnal Green station and is open every day between 10am and 5.45pm.

The new Mary Rose Museum opened this year, and while I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, it’s a good moment to look back at its fantastic history. BBC News broadcast a short documentary about the raising of the ship and the years of conservation work and this one is really worth a watch because you get some great behind-the-scenes access. It’s really made me consider conservation as a career – if I could only go back to uni!

In the first few decades of Henry VIII’s reign, he devoted a great deal of time to building up the English navy from its weak position, in order to enter the global military stage. Henry wished to relive the glorious victories of England’s past by engaging in war with France. He oversaw the construction of several new ships, including the Mary Rose, the Peter Pomegranate and the Henry Grace a Dieu.

The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth and launched in July 1511. She was built primarily of oak and weighed 500 tons. While it is a common story that she was named after Henry VIII’s sister Mary, historians assert that it is much more likely that the name was based on the Virgin Mary.

Immediately after construction, the ship engaged in battles with the French in the First French War, first in 1512 and then in 1513. In July 1514 she was placed in reserves for maintenance and subsequently took part in the Second French War, before being kept again in reserve from 1522 to 1545.

The last battle of the Mary Rose was the Battle of the Solent against the French in July 1545. The ship was not sunk due to damage, but right at the start of the battle a malfunction caused it to lean heavily to the right, allowing water to enter. This could not be corrected and the ship began to be damaged by water and falling equipment. The Mary Rose sank very quickly, giving men trapped by nets and equipment no time to escape.

In 1985, three years after the ship was salvaged, Patrick Wright wrote about the Mary Rose in his book On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain:

The fact that it sank due to what one commentator admits must have been ‘gross mismanagement’ before even engaging with the threatening French fleet does not appear to have prevented this from being recognised as the real stuff of history by the thousands who followed and celebrated the recovery.

Secretary of State William Paget ordered the ship to be salvaged soon after its sinking and while some guns, rigging and other equipment were retrieved, the hull could not be raised. The Mary Rose then lay forgotten on the bottom of the Solent for nearly 300 years until in 1836 it was rediscovered by fisherman.

The Victorian period saw many objects retrieved from the wreck and while some deteriorated due to inadequate preservation techniques, sketches were made of many objects and interest in the Mary Rose grew.

Modern efforts to salvage the ship were instigated by the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club in 1965. The Royal Navy and the Committee for Nautical Archaeology in London were also involved in the project. By 1974 the Committee had support from the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Navy, the BBC and Prince Charles.

The wreck was extensively surveyed and more objects retrieved. Plans for the salvage of the surviving section of hull began to be prepared, drawing on lessons from the salvage of the Swedish warship Vasa in the early 1960s. The methods of raising the wreck were highly contested due to fears that it would not hold together out of the water.

The Mary Rose salvage operation

The Mary Rose salvage operation

In Spring 1982, the plans began to be put into action. The frame was attached to the hull and slowly eased away from the seabed, before being lifted by a crane onto a specially designed cradle. On 11 October 1982, the full salvage began and the ship broke above the surface at 9.03am. Patrick Wright:

The Mary Rose is raised into the present social imagination, and it makes its entrance from the parallel realm of ‘nature’. It comes into society as if from nowhere.

The notion of the time-capsule situates the Mary Rose in a narrative structure which comes up again and again in various and diverse fables of nationalism.

The conservation process began immediately after the ship reached the surface. The hull and its objects were very sensitive to deterioration after air exposure due to their long rest underwater and so each artefact was immediately stored according to the material it was made of.

The Mary Rose being sprayed with polyethylene glycol

The Mary Rose being sprayed with polyethylene glycol

The initial aim of most of the conservation was to ensure that none of the material was allowed to dry out, before more permanent methods of preservation could be achieved. So the hull was constantly sprayed with water and kept at a low temperature. Then between 1994 and 2010, the hull was sprayed with  polyethylene glycol, a substance commonly used for preserving old wood. Over the sixteen years, this substance replaced the water in the timbers with wax. Since 2010, the hull has been in a phase of controlled air drying.

The hull was on display to visitors during this process, however it was only visible from behind a glass barrier in a covered dry dock. A separate museum was opened in the 1980s to explain the history of the ship and display artefacts. The new museum opened in May this year, finally uniting the hull with its objects and the history of the ship and its crew.

Efforts have been made to reconstruct the lives and physical attributes of the lost crew members, to make the ship and its era seem more real to the public. Even though only part of the hull remains, the museum reconstructs the other sections to give a better impression of the entire ship. Patrick Wright:

Is the Mary Rose still the Mary Rose? While the actual planks remain the same, there can be little doubt that, like the Ship of Theseus, this is a boat which has been thoroughly remade.

With so much reconstruction necessary and so much of our modern own historical consciousness applied to the Mary Rose, there is some truth in Wright’s words. However he was writing long before this new museum was opened, so I hope that when I visit I will find that his cynicism is proved wrong.

The new Mary Rose museum, Portsmouth

The new Mary Rose museum, Portsmouth

I visited the Churchill War Rooms many years ago and since my memories of it were hazy, I thought I’d check it out and see how it had changed. I remembered looking in on the old rooms and had a general feeling that it was a pretty great day out.

I also remembered it as being quite small and cramped, so I only left myself an afternoon to visit. This has certainly changed. The first thing I would say to people thinking of visiting the Churchill War Rooms is: leave plenty of time! You could easily spend a whole day there now if you like to be thorough in museums – I had to rush through the last few things to get through it all before closing time.

I must have visited before 2003 as all I remembered was the basic suite of the cabinet war rooms. In 2003, the attraction received major redevelopment. A new suite of rooms, which had been occupied by Churchill, his wife and other associates, was restored and opened to the public. Also an enormous museum about the life and work of Winston Churchill was opened and in 2006 it won the Council of Europe Museum Prize.

The war rooms now have an excellent audio guide which takes your through the different rooms and explains how they were used during the war. The bunker began to be constructed in 1938 and started to be used just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

The first room you come to is the Cabinet Room, where Churchill and his cabinet and military officials met to discuss strategy. The room was left exactly as it was when the war ended in 1945 and it’s fascinating to see Churchill’s leather chair still in pride of place in front of the world map.

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Winston Churchill’s Cabinet Room

During the first year of the war, Neville Chamberlain only used the room once, but after Churchill became Prime Minister, he said  ‘this is the room from which I will direct the war’ and subsequently had 115 cabinet meetings there.

Another interesting room is the Transatlantic Telephone Room which contained a secure telephone line which Churchill used to talk to President Roosevelt in Washington. This security was achieved with the use of a  SIGSALY code-scrambler located in the basement of Selfridges, Oxford Street. I really wish this still existed and could be visited by the public!

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There is a good section halfway through the route around the rooms, which gives a little more information about the way the rooms were used. There are some great objects on display as well as a map which shows how huge the bunker complex is – visited are only seeing a tiny portion of it!

There’s some great information about the ordinary people who worked in the war rooms and how they had to sleep in the sub-basement dormitory known as “the dock”. This small section is accompanied with some fantastic video interviews with former employees.

One interesting exhibit is a joke letter written by staff complaining of ‘acute shortages’ of ‘silk stockings, chocolates and cosmetics’.

In the light of the above, it is considered that the most expedient method of implementing the proposal in (c) would be the early dispatch of a mission to the U.S.A; a Force Commander has already been appointed, in anticipation of instructions.

Operation "Desperate" mock letter

Operation “Desperate” mock letter

At this point you enter the Churchill Museum, which is massive and includes lots of audiovisual displays, interactive elements, sounds and objects.  It has been designed so that you do not start at the beginning of Churchill’s life, but rather follow the course ofhte war and then return to Churchill’s birth and early life halfway through the museum.

While the museum is full of interesting exhibits and detailed information, I feel that it has suffered from the 2003 curators’ over-excitement about new technologies.  The museum is very dark, clearly to accentuate the panels and visual exhibits that light up. However this is quite disorientating once you’ve been in the museum for a few minutes, and some of the smaller more traditional exhibits such as letters and documents are difficult to read and so suffer.

The museum also lacks a clear route. I am sure some people prefer to wander and find their own route, but personally I like to look at everything when I visit a museum, preferably in order, so if I find myself reading about something ten years ahead or behind where I just was, I find it very distracting. Of course I am sure this is a personal thing.

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The Churchill Museum

The designers were clearly trying to weave sound and image in a very innovative way in the museum, and it certainly is innovative. However I sometimes felt the words ‘style over substance’ come to mind, as some of the design elements seemed a bit unnecessary. For example they incorporated two projections facing eachother with seats beneath, and the accompanying sound could only be heard when sitting directly below the opposite screen. While an interesting idea, it still means you have several voices in your ears at once and I feel it may have simply been more effective to just have two screens installed away from one another.

Another example of this overuse of sound technologies is the use of focused speakers in the ceiling, which are activated when you step on a sensor in the right place directly below the speaker. I am all for these methods of directing sound so it is not heard by everybody else, however it does somewhat remove the social element of visiting a museum. I found myself at several points listening to an interesting commentary near somebody else, before they suddenly moved away from the sensor, so the sound was turned off and I missed the end of the recording.

I found myself frequently wandering around confused, trying to read something, while hearing several conflicting voices coming from unexpected places. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned about these things and in a few years we will all be so used to these kinds of exhibitions. However I do think that curators should be careful not to overuse these techniques for the sake of it, at the expense of people’s understanding and comfort.

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The Churchill Museum Lifeline

One interesting element of the museum is the Lifeline, an interactive timeline which contains loads of detailed information about every year of Churchill’s life. This is really fascinating once yuo get the hang of it, however it demonstrated how fast technology moves. As it’s 2013 my first inclination was to touch the screen to move through the timeline, however instead you have to touch one of the small pads positioned around the table. It is not very sensitive and a little difficult to navigate, but a useful reference all the same.

Leaving aside these design-related criticisms, I must say the Churchill Museum is incredibly comprehensive and has some fascinating exhibits.  One of my favourites was a small interactive screen which showed remarks Churchill made over the course of his life. He was n incredibly witty man and these quotes made fantastic reading.

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Churchill’s Siren suit

The museum also has one of Churchill’s Siren suits on display, an all-in-one zip up suit which he wore on many occasions. From Churchill’s early life there are also some school reports, which show his lack of achievement in early life but his interest in history, and a punishment book, which is fascinating to read just to see the kinds of punishments delivered for the types of school-related transgressions.

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An Enigma Machine in the Churchill Museum

At this point during my visit, we had to hurry through the final part of the museum to see the rest of the war rooms before closing times. Again it would have been good to know how many rooms were left if you don’t have much time as you get stuck into the museum halfway through the route around the historical rooms.

These final rooms included the bedrooms of Churchill, his wife and other senior staff and the Chief of Staff Conference Room, which includes large maps with wartime doodlings of Hitler on them

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The Chief of Staff Conference Room

There is also a room which the BBC used to broadcast Churchill’s speeches, four of which he made from his bedroom, including his 11 September 1940 speech warning of Hitler’s plans against the UK.

The map room is also fascinating, with maps covering every wall and each one marked by millions of tiny pinpricks as they were marked and remarked by hand. It is amazing how plans were executed from these rooms with such basic organisational equipment.

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A map of Europe in the Map Room

The Churchill War Rooms is definitely worth and now it has been expanded so much, I would say it is worth a whole day’s visit, as you can certainly make it worth the £17 ticket price if you absorb all the information there. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 6pm and is a short walk from Westminster or St James’s Park tube stations.

I went to the Design Museum on the South Bank to visit The Future is Here exhibition, which focuses on new design and manufacturing techniques. It  has a quick introduction to the breakthroughs of the industrial revolution before flagging the dawn of ‘a new industrial revolution’, with advances in robotics, new materials and 3D printing.

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We are in the midst of a transformation in the way we design, make and use the objects that we depend on. It is a transformation that will affect commerce, industry, and the way that we all live as profoundly as any previous Industrial Revolution. The exhibition explores how the boundaries between designer, manufacturer and consumer are becoming increasingly blurred. See some of these manufacturing techniques demonstrated in The Future is Here Factory and find out how they will change the designed world around you.

The exhibition had some fascinating objects showing new materials and new ways of designing products, but the best exhibits were the machines themselves in action. They have a 3D printer and woodworking machines as well as some robotic demonstrations and videos of products being designed and materials processed. They also have some examples of furniture which you can have manufactured to order online from downloadable designs, before assembling the parts at home. Even the exhibition itself was built from cardboard, stacked and carved to create light but solid tables.

The main collection exhibition is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, on display until 2015, which I actually found more interesting. The Design Museum have selected 150 objects from the collections to explore their history. It includes some fascinating examples of British design, including a feature on the design of road signs and the London telephone box. It’s also interesting to see some not-so-old examples of design, such as the Apple iMac, which look so dated now.

Six design stories offer a diverse look at design tracing the history and processes of contemporary design. The show includes furniture, product, fashion, transport and architecture alongside a selection of prototypes, models and specially commissioned films.

Another smaller section at the museum is Designers in Residence 2013, which to be honest I found a little pretentious, except for the very moving work of Chloe Meineck, who designs memory boxes for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

The Future is Here is on display until 29 October 2013 and is open daily between 10am and 5.45pm. The gift shop is also worth a visit, even if only to look at the products. There are some really interesting things there, but as you might expect everything’s very expensive.

I visited the National Maritime Museum yesterday, which has some fantastic examples of ship figureheads and ship badges from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the outset of the age of seafaring, images were used to mark out the identity of a ship and these soon developed into painted wooden statues, mounted onto the bowsprit.

Figureheads from the National Maritime Museum

Figureheads from the National Maritime Museum

Early on the images were often religious symbols to protect the ship during its voyages or animals to indicate the ship’s power and grace and to frighten enemy sailors. Serpents, swans and lions were among the most popular animals used to adorn ships in the medieval and early modern periods.

Figurehead from HMS Ajax (1809-64) and HMS Bulldog (1845-65)

Figurehead from HMS Ajax (1809-64) and HMS Bulldog (1845-65)

In the eighteenth century, painted human figures became more popular. These were often mythological figures and/or figures that represented the name of the ship. The popularity of these figures continued into the nineteenth century, becoming larger, heavier and more elaborate. Certain figures were very popular, for example a naked or semi-clothed woman was said to calm a stormy ocean.

The figurehead for HSM London (1840-84) has a model of the Tower of London on her head.

The figurehead for HSM London (1840-84) has a model of the Tower of London on her head.

With the success of steam-powered ships, figureheads went out of use and were abolished by the Royal Navy for major vessels in 1894. In 1918 the Navy adopted the use of ship’s badges displayed on the bridge to mark the identity of a ship. These were much more uniform in design but still contained symbols of the ship’s name.

The Long John Silver Collection of figureheads, at the Cutty Sark museum.

The Long John Silver Collection of figureheads, at the Cutty Sark museum.

Ship badges from the National Maritime Museum. The top row shows HMS Benbow, HMS Renown, HMS Marlborough, HMS Kenilworth Castle and HMS Loch More

Ship badges from the National Maritime Museum. The top row shows HMS Benbow, HMS Renown, HMS Marlborough, HMS Kenilworth Castle and HMS Loch More

I visited the Black Country Living Museum last month, which is just outside Dudley near Birmingham. It’s an interesting mix of museum and reconstructed town with actors, reconstructed shops, an old mine and a canal with tunnels. It’s huge and really deserves a whole day to see everything and I reckon it’s perfect for families and kids.

Before you are released into the outside areas, there is a small but really informative museum about the Black Country area, which encompasses Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. It gives in depth information about the industries that emerged and developed in these areas: coal, iron, steel and more specifically chains, locks, glass, springs, equestrian and railway equipment. The areas really became the driving force of the industrial revolution and the museum is designed to give you an overview of what was produced in the Black Country before you walk into the reconstructed town.

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Outside the museum there is a small transport museum with cars and engines from the era and there is a working tram which you can take to get around the grounds, although I didn’t take that up myself. On a nice day (which this was!) it’s a genuinely nice place to have a walk around. There’s a small park and the lanes and cobbled streets that run through the town are so quiet it is easy to imagine you are back in the nineteenth century. There are over fifty reconstructed houses, shops and workshops which you can explore, and actors in period costume give you information about how people used to live. On that note, the actors have got the balance quite right: they are not too pushy and unnerving and they won’t overact or refuse to come out of character. I normally don’t like actors at historical attractions but the people working here were pretty friendly without being overwhelming.

Walking around the town it is easy to see why the Black Country Living Museum is such a good place for kids. There were several school parties there when I visited and they seemed to be having a great time playing Victorian games like hoop rolling on the cobbles. There is also a reconstructed school where we could see the kids being given an authentic Victorian lesson in the classroom. Once they’ve put up with the educational side, there’s a reconstructed funfair with authentic old arcade games and rides which although slightly creepy is probably good fun if you’re part of a huge group of children.

Other highlights of the experience include a reconstructed coal drift mine which you can explore in a group led by a guide. It’s pitch dark and very narrow and uneven so gives you as good an idea of the mining conditions of the time as you you’re going to get in a museum.  Miners tended to work twelve-hour shifts, some could be as young as ten years old and casualties and deaths due to flooding, falls and collapsed mines were common. This tour was one of the most interesting parts of my visit to the museum and I recommend you check the tour times early to be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to go.

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Mary Macarthur, trade unionist and women’s rights campaigner.

The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute is another really interesting building in the town. The interior of the building is set in 1935 and the information, photos and artefacts inside explore the British labour history. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1910 chainmakers’ strike, there is an exhibition about Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. I might explore her life in more depth in another post.

Again if you check the times early and pay a little extra, you can take a canal trip through the tunnels and it really is worth it. When I went, it was the last trip of the day so we were the only ones on the boat and had a private tour from the guide. The tunnels are some of the longest in the country and were built to transport cargo and to give access to mine limestone from the hills. The guide we had was really interesting and showed us fossils in the rock and even better there is an audio-visual display half way through the tour which incredibly shows you the geological history of the Black Country from the Big Bang to today!

Finally don’t forget to check out the Bottle & Glass Inn, which serves traditional food and real ale. Unfortunately it was closed when I got round to visiting it, but I did visit the authentic Hobbs and Sons Fish and Chip shop which was excellent, and serves pickled onions and pickled eggs!

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The Black Country Living Museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area and is a particularly good day out for kids. The adult price is £14.95 which isn’t too bad considering the size of the place and the amount to see there, so I would say it is worth it. If I had any criticism it would be that I would’ve liked to find out a little more about how they set up the museum in the first place, what was there before and how much of the buildings are original and exactly what the reconstructed parts were based on. But leaving aside the history of the museum itself, it does give a great overview of British industrial and labour history in the Black Country area, and I certainly learnt a lot and have a much better feel for the period than I did before I visited.

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