It is all too easy to simply walk past the Museum of Childhood without ever really noticing it. The tall, arched glass doorway on the north side of High Street is elegant and attractive, but unless you pay attention to the name, it can be readily mistaken for just another retail outlet on the Royal Mile.
This is a great shame, because the Museum of Childhood is a magical place that deserves to be explored by children of all ages. And perhaps most of all by those of us whose childhoods in decades past can be rekindled by a glimpse of a once-treasured but long-forgotten toy sitting in a display case. It would probably amaze today's Playstation generation to find that their parents' and grandparents' generations could be so easily amused. On the other hand, a clever and well made toy, however simple, retains the power to entertain even a modern three year old: and it is wonderful that so many of the ancestors of today's toys have been preserved and are on display here.
It is difficult from the outside to know what to expect in terms of size from the Museum of Childhood. The building you enter houses two large galleries, while the neighbouring building, the other side of South Gray's Close, has three floors, each given over to a single large gallery. The result is a large museum full of many lifetimes' worth of childhood memories, in which it is easy to spend as many hours here as you have decades to shed. If you want something to do on a rainy day in Edinburgh that is guaranteed to keep all the family happy, look no further.
The story of the founding of the museum is nearly as fascinating as the museum itself. Patrick Murray was Chairman of Edinburgh Council's Libraries and Museums Committee when, in 1955, he read of two dolls, one previously owned by Queen Victoria, being sent to a museum in London because there was nowhere suitable to display them in Scotland. He gained the agreement of his colleagues to make space available in the museum at Lady Stair's Close (now the Writers' Museum) for a collection of objects reflecting the lives of past generations of children.
The idea captured the imaginations of many, and donations of objects soon outstripped the availability of space in which to display them. In 1957 the collection moved to a restored tenement building on Edinburgh's High Street, specially adapted for use as a museum. The result was the first museum anywhere in the world devoted to the history of childhood. In 1962 Patrick Murray left the City Council, and instead became full time curator of the museum he had brought about. The first guidebook was clear about the aims of the museum: "This is not a museum for children, it is a museum about them".
Murray had a gift for generating publicity, driven in part by his declared dislike of children. This went as far as his proposal for a memorial window in the museum entrance celebrating the life of "Good King Herod"! This idea was presumably spawned by the same sense of humour that delighted those who read the idiosyncratic captions that were Murray's trademark until his retirement in 1972.
Until 1986 the Museum of Childhood was housed in the more easterly of the two buildings it occupies today. The collection had already outgrown the building by the time Patrick Murray retired, and in 1987 the Museum expanded into the neighbouring building to the west.
The newer addition is today the part of the museum you see first. Beyond the attractive and welcoming reception area is Gallery 1. Here you find some of the larger toys on show plus objects like slot machines, including a "Working Model of a Haunted House". The upper floor of this side of the museum forms Gallery 2. The collection of dolls' houses on one side of the room looks across at the toy trains, cars and aeroplanes on the other side, while large display cases in the centre of the floor give scope for magnificent layouts.
The original museum is today home to three galleries, stacked vertically. The first you come to displays the museum's collections of dolls, soft toys and automata. Massed dolls can sometimes have a slightly unsettling effect, but those gathered in Gallery 3 seem fairly happy to be here, and are not the least spooky even if you have them to yourself. What is particularly interesting is the sheer range of objects on display.
Next floor up is a very wide ranging collection that covers areas as diverse as indoor and outdoor games; skills and hobbies; construction toys; arts and crafts; and reading and writing. The enormous Meccano model of a ferris wheel forming part of a scene at one end of the gallery was the star of the show for us, unless you count the Lego taps and washbowl suspended from a wall. The final gallery has a series of scenes devoted to themes including children's clothes; fancy dress; in the street; the nursery; and the schoolroom. Here many everyday objects of childhoods of yesteryear are placed in context and as a result leave an even more vivid impression than those found elsewhere in the museum.