Stop me if I have said this before, but in the middle of London there is a museum that is quite unlike any other.
It’s Pollocks Toy Museum, which sits in two lopsided houses in the middle of newly-booming Fitzrovia. Pollocks is the creation of a museum-making family called the Fawdry’s, and is stuffed from top to bottom with toys, mostly English and Victorian. The whole place has a shimmer about it of Folk Art and lost Englishness – a pre-industrial feel of beaches and Punch and Judy’s and merry go rounds and wooden toys. It’s a hymn to a golden age of children’s toys, and also to mythical Victorian childhoods,
There are dolls, dolls houses, rocking horses, toy theatres, teddy bears and the magical pull of miniatureness. All of which ought to suggest a cosy comfortableness, but somehow doesn’t. In fact, it is a little dark, faintly surreal, somewhat eerie, and utterly compelling. Which is right of course because very few children ever had the mythical Victorian childhood; for most Victorian children life was much tougher.
And in a world where museums are increasingly looking samey, there is nowhere else like Pollocks anywhere in London.
So how do you get to be a museum, which is quite unlike any other? Well, for a start, you keep it in the family. It was Marguerite Fawdry – French, business-like, determined – who first created it after World War 2 and who fixed the look and feel of the Museum, as well as its collecting policy – which was focused on neglected, 19th century, English toys. It was their neglect that bothered her. Like many another collector she was setting out to right the wrongs meted out to inanimate objects.
The Fawdry’s were toy theatre lovers, fans of popular art and artists such as Edward Ardizzone, Bawden, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.If you had told me that Pollocks was created by an artist I would have believed you. But then that’s what collectors are like. They live at a sideways angle to Time.
Marguerite passed the Museum on to her son John who in turn passed it to his son Eddy, the present owner. It is Eddy that I am interviewing. He is young, genial, smiling, but not given to saying a lot if he can say a little.
‘Were you pleased to inherit a museum?’ I ask him. ‘Not at all,’ he says, ‘i was a bit shocked but I got into it.’ ‘And your father?’ ‘I don’t think he ever really wanted it.’ ‘And your son?’ ‘He’s a bit like me. He’s probably a bit resistant but he will soon realise, like me, that he doesn’t have a choice.’
We talk about the advantages of not looking like every other museum – which are considerable. (You wouldn’t publish a series of identical books so why do we create identical museums? Museums should be allowed to come in many different shapes and forms.)
And we talk about the Musee de la Chasse in Paris, a Marco Polo favourite and another deeply poetic museum.
And we also talk about the delicate question of Time and what happens when a museum doesn’t change.
Pollocks and a few others like it are the last of the Old Museums – all gloom and brown showcases. When they were the norm forty years ago it seemed right to update them – it still does – but now that there are only a few of them left you somehow want to hold on to them like an endangered species. And yet if a museum doesn’t change it becomes in the end a museum of a museum, frozen in time and sinking deep into pastness. Museums are about Time but are also perpetually confused and wrong-footed by it. So how, we wonder, can you change these museums without killing their magic?
I ask him if he knows more about the artefacts than is written on the labels. ‘Sometimes,’ he says, and I surprise myself with a pang of longing to know more. If there’s one thing that’s frustrating about Pollocks it’s how little it tells you. The more I come back the better I know the objects and yet the more I want to know about them.
I wonder out loud what his visitors ask for and he says, ‘A cafe. Lighting. Interactivity.’ (‘What do you think they mean by interactivity?’ he adds.)
‘And what if you inherited a million pounds?’ I say, ‘What would you do then?’ ‘I’d mend the roof,’ he answers promptly. ‘Really? So who usually mends your roof?’ ‘I do,’ he says, ‘I get up there on a ladder.’
And I ask him what his visitor numbers are like. ‘It varies, but there are roughly the same amount from year to year.’ ‘So visitor numbers are stable?’ ‘Yes, if that’s the technical term.’ ‘And your showcases? When were they last replaced?’ ‘I don’t think they ever have been,’ he says, surprised.
It costs a lot to run a museum. Pollocks is in Fitzrovia. Step outside the front door and you can hear the sounds of Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road. This part of London was once a backwater but the real estate here now costs an arm and a leg, cafes and fancy restaurants are springing up in every direction, and each year Pollocks feels more and more like an anomaly.
‘And can Pollocks really survive?’ I ask. ‘I don’t see why not,’ he says, genial and smiling, optimistic but also defiant.
I hope it does.
Pollocks Toy Museum is at 1, Scala Street, London W1T 2HL Tel: 020 7636 3452
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