Ornament revived: Caruso St. John’s Museum of Childhood.

Toys should be played with, yes? A toy in a box, or a toy in a glass case, is something else – an exhibit, a curio, an exercise in nostalgia or design history. This is why the world is awash with hands-on museums, so that children can grapple with real objects. On that count, the freshly-revamped V&A Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green – which reopened yesterday (Saturday Dec 9) after a £4.7m rebuild, should be an abject failure. But it is not. It works just fine, in a defiantly old-fashioned way.

This is, in fact, an extraordinarily radical piece of museum positioning by the V&A’s East End outpost. This building is the nation’s toybox, and it is so conservative, it is positively bracing. Glass display cases? Yes please, let’s have some new ones. And let’s display our extraordinary collection of child-related objects pretty much the way we always have, but with better layout and lighting. As for adult condescension to children, and the deployment of cutesy graphics and bubblegum colours, forget it. You come here, you’d better behave like a grown-up.

I may be slightly exaggerating the essentially Victorian nature of this marvellous institution, but not much. There are one or two inter-active pieces of the kind where you put a 20p piece in the slot to make toy trains move, and now there’s even a corner with a sort of spacey light show going on, probably intended to calm down the hyperactive contingent. There are colours aplenty, inside and out – but all in the best possible taste. There’s no talking-down.

I like the Museum of Childhood for all kinds of reasons, going back to when I first arrived in London, went there out of idle curiosity, and found that they possessed a pull-along play cart made by the high priest of the De Stijl movement, Gerrit Rietveld, in the manner of his iconic “red-blue” chair. It’s still there, along with more normal fare such as red-painted metal pedal cars from the 1950s, dolls and dolls’ houses, train sets, ray guns, robots, Transformers, teddy bears, board games, you name it.

But the discovery of a Rietveld trolley was as nothing to the fact that the museum displayed, as precious objects, toys which I’d been playing with myself only a few years previously. There was the Bayko construction set, as made from 1934 to 1967, there the Meccano and Lego, there the Magic Robot general knowledge game, there the Dinky toy articulated car transporter, in two beautiful shades of blue, which was actually my brother’s, but who’s asking?

In other words, this was a museum which was still collecting astutely, and which understood that the recent past is more evocative than a century or more ago. A My Little Pony would mean more to most of the museum’s visitors than a wooden doll from 1300 BC, though there is one of those, too. But there was another story about the museum that I liked, and still do. This is the story about the way the building started off somewhere else, then got up and walked across to the East End, settled down and got itself a new suit of clothes. It is a story of Victorian technical ingenuity, and it is still being played out, because now the building has acquired a new front extension which plays with the whole idea of Victorian-ness, as done by some of the smartest architects in the business, Caruso St. John.

That was the essence of being Victorian: to be ultra-modern, with astonishing technology at your disposal, while simultaneously hankering after the past. Thus in 1856 the starkly utilitarian building flung up on the Brompton Road as the first South Kensington Museum was a kind of pocket Crystal Palace (the building of the 1851 Great Exhibition which spawned the museums quarter), only without so much style. Iron columns, wooden floors, glass roof, corrugated iron walls. No architect was involved. It was dubbed the “Brompton Boilers”.

A decade later, the bigger, permanent museum that became the V&A was being planned and the Brompton Boilers were surplus to requirements. Since it fell into three sections (central hall with two transepts) the idea was hatched to split it up and send it to outlying boroughs as mini-museums. But only Bethnal Green wanted one, so they got the whole thing. It was taken to pieces, trundled across town, re-erected, and given a traditional brick skin with improving mosaic murals by a young architect named J.W. Wild. He had grander plans for the place, including a spacious new front lobby, but money was tight: it has taken 150 years, and the intervention of the Heritage Lottery Fund, to get that addition built.

Peter St. John knows his architectural history. He’s a modernist who has no problem with the past, and greatly admires the verve of the Victorians. Crucially, he finds nothing obnoxious in colour, pattern, texture, decoration. Ornament is no crime in his book, and he and his colleague Adam Caruso have gone further than most in reviving it. So what you find today at Bethnal Green is a new entrance building, clearly modern in its smooth-skinned way with its flush glass windows – but that skin is a riot of coloured, patterned stonework – quartzite, various porphyries and shades of Ancaster limestone – laid with precision by the same traditional masons who worked on the restoration of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in Spitalfields. The name of the museum is inset in mosaic. The overall purplish hue of the new building picks up on the equivalent colour of the original high-level murals.

In St. John’s mind, his new building is a bit like the marble frontage to some Italian Renaissance brick churches, as they might have been reinterpreted in the mid 19th century – in turn done in a 21st century manner. It’s a complex and nuanced intellectual position, but who cares – it works. This is another example of the new postmodernism, another slap in the face for polite-modern, steel-and-glass white minimalism. But that’s enough about isms. What about Miffy?

The reopening show at the V&A Museum of Childhood is devoted to the 50th birthday of the white-girl-rabbit-as-logo character originally created by children’s author Dick Bruna as a way to keep his one-year-old son entertained on a rainy holiday in North Holland. Well, Miffy may be the same age as me but she formed no part of my upbringing and I can’t quite see the appeal. Now, if it had been an exhibition of Ant and Bee books, or better yet Captain Pugwash, then I’d have been first in line on opening day.

This is the treacherous line that the Museum of Childhood must walk: somehow it must appeal to children while at the same time catering for the selective memories of adults. It is a museum OF childhood, which is not the same as a museum for children. Having dragged many a child round it in the past, I’m clear that its main appeal is for grown-ups. And that’s just fine by me. Let the little children work a bit at this, while we appreciate the rich irony of toys you can look at but not touch, in a building that is a knowing museum of itself.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in the Sunday Times, London, on December 17, 2006, as “Playing to a grown-up crowd”.

V&A Museum of Childhood: http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk
Caruso St. John, architects: http://www.carusostjohn.com
Caruso St. John and tradition: http://www.hughpearman.com/2006/06.html