I recently visited the V&A Museum of Childhood in London : The old Victorian purpose built structure used to house the Bethnal Green Museum since its inception in 1872 , but by the 1970s it had become a museum dedicated to children : It currently contains the largest collection of toys in the United Kingdom !
If you like toys like I do, this is an overwhelming experience : from zoetropes to Xboxes, miniature steam engines to Scalextric racetracks, Kewpie dolls to Playmobil and Lego sets, each glass display was a time travel capsule to my youth. I’m a boy (obviously), but there’s plenty of items representing the young ladies of times past : mini theaters with paper figurines, tea sets, rocking horses, princess outfits, an entire case dedicated to Barbie dolls and accessories next to a whole town made of dollhouses !
Up to 20 years ago, such distinctions as “boy” and “girl” toys were more important and reflected the norms of the time, but today these becoming more and more irrelevant – my opinion based on the playing habits of children around me.
Toys often have the tendency to reflect and convey the spirit and habits of their time. There are, for example, many science fiction toys on display dating from the 60’s onward, therefore reflecting popular demand shaped by the ongoing Space Race and subsequent moon landings on that decade, and so on – the entire collection is huge and massively interesting as a record of what has been capturing the children’s imagination through time.
Nevertheless, I found some of the 18th and 19th century toys on display weird and nearly disturbing. Perhaps it was the materials used or the great effort toy makers made to create truer lifelike impressions in their creations. Or maybe it was the disheveled state of their figures or their long gone missing parts – but just looking at some of them in the dim light of their display cases filled me with a certain degree of horror : A French made figurine without its garments or a hat, with its brain and limbs of wire exposed, staring me with those cold, beady eyes. A devilish looking rabbit hopping out of a blood red wind-up hat. A clockwork cabbage with a bunny like creature ready to pounce. A music box operated by two impeccably dressed chimpanzees in baroque garments, their tricorn hats resting next to them, playing their violoncellos. I wouldn’t want to wake up at night with any of these toys in my room, for certain !
Some other toys troubled me with their incorrectness, and I seriously doubt they would be allowed into the market nowadays : The singing, moving, donkey-eared wind up Dunce, for example, a coarse mockery of the “idiot” in a class or social group. Or the Dancing Bear, a reference to the captured and then trained creatures that thrilled crowds in village fairs for hundreds of years : I remember witnessing one as a small boy, and it was not an entertaining experience at all !
And then puppet toys : these were mortifying in their entirety. There’s something about their glossy faces and limbs moving in strange angles that chills me to the bone, as they lock in an eternal zombie-like rigor mortis with huge, inhuman smiles upon their faces. Then there are the Japanese Bunraku puppets, fixing you with their angry eyebrows and impressive in their realistic, handmade 16th century clothing and real human hair, which was combed and waxed in ceremonial preparation before each performance… these dolls looked nearly alive… and sitting next to the brown/grey oriental Shadow puppets, made from animal hide into fantastic creatures, djinns and dragons, their pronounced features artfully exaggerating their shadows to deliver staggering performances behind white linen cloth.
I was still perplexed by the unpleasantness emanating from these items that were supposed to entertain children not too long ago, when I happened by a huge dollhouse by the entrance to the exhibition : a closer look revealed it was full of little toy ghosts, representing previous inhabitants! Apparently, one of the current projects of the Museum, involving primary school aged children from local communities and aiming to understand living space in their city and how it is affected by the passage of time.
Why some toys have to be so scary? Or is it just my own imagination that makes them so? While each one of us develops their own thresholds of fear, I am guessing it’s good and normal for children to be scared by their toys now and then, so they can better comprehend the concepts of fear and danger. Growing up, we develop those coping mechanisms that help us function when faced with the unknown, and then proceed to face and understand it.