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Issue 38 - They don't make 'em like they used to

Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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They don't make 'em like they used to

Roddy Martine takes a walk down memory lane at The Museum of childhood, Edinburgh.

The Old Town of Edinburgh is not the obvious location for the first museum in the world to specialise in the history of childhood. Even more surprisingly, it was the inspiration of Patrick Murray, an Edinburgh Town councillor, who once claimed that children were “only tolerable after their baths and on the way to bed!” Since then, of course, much has changed, although the Museum of Childhood, located in Hyndland’s Close on the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood, is still run by the City of Edinburgh Council. Today it is spread over five floors in five different galleries, and its themes cleverly relate to the history of childhood and children at play.

Exhibitions include toys, games space and displays involving health, education, clothing, traditions and upbringing. The toys in the collection embrace dolls and doll’s houses, some endearing teddy bears, both large and small, and train sets and tricycles, a very different world from today’s computer games and cyberspace diversions.

In the past, toys and games were very much more personal and individual, and may not have required as much intelligence as those of today, but they were certainly enormous fun.

Moreover, there were the comics – remember those childhood favourites, the Dandy and the Beano from D.C. Thomson of Dundee? Desperate Dan and Our Gang?

Generations were influenced by the antics of Bananaman, Korky the Cat and Beryl the Peril.

Also on show there are ‘penny arcade’ machines, and all sorts of memorabilia travelling through the Victorian era to the present day.

Throughout the building, the curators have been very clever in collating items that would otherwise have been disposed of as worthless and probably by now have been forgotten.

Yet when you confront them, all kinds of memories re-emerge from an age when toys and games were solid and physical, not simply electronic. Of course, there are those who will argue that it is fine for the older generation to say this, but all I can suggest is that they go along and witness the very obvious fascination shown by today’s young as they wander through this musuem.

Remember the metal construction Meccano Set with its nuts and bolts? All sorts of wonderful contraptions were created in this way, providing hours of concentration and peace and quiet for the grown ups, many of whom joined in the challenge. Later there came the Lego bricks which slotted together.

I also like the way in which reproduction toys and games are provided for visiting kids to experiment with. It is any wonder that the place is always busy? I can think of no better diversion on a grey day.

Since its opening in 1955, this museum has played a pivotal role in the recognition of the childhood experience as not just a step to adulthood, but as a significant and potent cultural force. Since children are more or less allowed to move around at will, it is sometimes described as “the noisiest museum in the world,” something you certainly notice if you telephone during the week to check on opening hours.

Whether you have a family or not, Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood is an experience that provides enormous fun for the kids of today and yesterday. Situated just across the road from a house once occupied by the great Protestant Reformer John Knox, this might be an unexpected find when you visit Scotland’s capital for the first time, but 53 years on it looks as if it is here to stay.