As a self confessed home lover, it won’t come as much of a surprise to hear that I am also a long standing fan of the miniature variety. So when I heard that Rachel Whiteread’s artwork Place (Village) (an installation of over 150 vintage dolls houses), was coming to the V&A Museum of Childhood, I knew I had to go see it as soon as possible.
I have always had a bit of a thing for dolls houses and remember a particularly shabby second hand one that I owned as a child. Showing an early interest in interior design, I lovingly decorated it with oversized wall paper from a old discarded sample book and a tiny hand crocheted rug from my mum. The love and attention lavished upon these miniature homes is one of the things that drew Rachel Whiteread to start collecting them over 20 years ago:
“I started collecting dolls’ houses when I first left college. This work connects to my earlier work because these houses have no people in them and there is no furniture. I was interested in the interiors of these houses and also the fact that they had been through many generations of family. They may have been made by the father. There was a lot of love involved with them and then eventually the love was lost. They were transferred through generations. That transaction is always something that’s been in my work. The things that I’ve worked with have all been used, had a life before”
Rachel Whiteread, 2017
Place (village) was first shown in Naples in 2007 and was then part of the Hayward Gallery’s Psycho Buildings exhibition in 2008. And has now been given a permanent home in the east London museum. The houses of all different sizes, styles and vintage have been lit from the inside and arranged by the Turner Prize winning artist upon pallets and packing boxes to create a ‘sprawling hillside community’ that is an architectural feast for the eyes.
I invited a friend along, as I knew that her three year old son shared my love of dolls houses. I have a vague memory of visiting the Museum of Childhood as a child, unfortunately I don’t recall it being a particularly exciting experience, I loved seeing all the old toys and games but everything was behind glass and there was nothing to play with. However, museums have definitely changed since I was a child and now lots of thought goes into engaging and stimulate young minds. The memorabilia from bygone childhoods still has pride of place at the V&A Museum of Childhood, but it is presented in a much more dynamic way and hands on/interactive exhibits are dotted in between the glass display cabinets. It took us the best part of the day to make our way around the museum as our young companion wanted to play and explore at every opportunity. He particularly enjoyed the Giant robot, Beach area (with Sand Pit and Punch and Judy puppet theatre) and a sensory play area with lots of coloured lights.
But the museum of childhood is not just for children, there is also plenty for grown ups to enjoy. And I now visit fairly regularly (without kids); whenever they have a new exhibitions or if I fancy an inspiring trip down memory lane.
Just inside the entrance there is currently a lovely community visual arts project on display. Searching for Ghosts is described as an intergenerational journey of discovery, it explores the homes and lives of several generations of east Londoners, created in partnership with St Hilda’s East Community Centre and Virginia Primary School, Bethnal Green.
I particularly loved “Tower Block on Holly Street”, an Architectural model (by James Mackinnon) combined with photographs of the previous residents taken by Tom Hunter, which offers a haunting image of homes that no longer exist (the Holly Street estate was demolished in the 1990s).
The project also celebrates the Boundary Estate in Tower Hamlets, one of the earliest social housing schemes, built by the London County Council in 1898.
I thought the collages of period wallpapers combined with images of residents from each era was a beautifully evocative way of documenting the passage of time and the layered changes of occupancy and taste.
The building that houses the museum is itself quite interesting. The interior iron frame was originally part of the temporary structure for the main V&A museum when it opened in South Kensington 1859, it was moved and reconstructed in Bethnal Green in 1868 (when it was decided that East London should also have a V&A museum) and a permanent red brick exterior was built around it. The original design for the exterior by architect J. W. Wild was sadly not completed due to lack of funds. However, when the building was refurbished in 2006, the new entrance/front extension was said to be inspired by the original drawings by Wild.
The mosaic marble floor, in a distinctive geometric pattern, was laid by the female inmates of Woking Gaol.
The V&A Museum of Childhood is located on Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. And the nearest Station is Bethnal Green (Central Line) or Cambridge Heath (Overground). It is open daily 10.00-17.45 (last admission 17.30) and admission is free. Lunch and refreshments are available from the Benugo cafe in the central atrium. The museum (and cafe) can get very busy during the school holidays and acuostics of the open plan space filled with excited children and lots of hard surfaces can mean that it gets very noisy at times. If you prefer a quieter visit, it’s worth going a little in the afternoon (after 2.30 pm).