Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Pathos of Pollocks Toy Museum

13th January 2014

14th January 2014:  Don’t ask me how it does it but one of the most poignant and touching of London museums is one that breaks all the rules:  no Level 1 texts, no lighting to speak of, and displays that have scarcely been touched in the 10 years that I’ve known it. And yet, for charm, poignancy and more than a little strangeness, Pollocks Toy Museum is up there with the best of them.

It sits behind Goodge Street Station in a couple of old brick houses that lean up against each other in a crooked, dolls house way. At its heart is a collection of toy theatres once belonging to a Mr Benjamin Pollock, a modest and diffident man billed by history as ‘the last of the toy theatre makers’.  To this collection has been added a collections of dolls, dolls houses, board games, toy soldiers and 19th century optical toys.

Look in through the windows and you will see all the trappings we find so appealing, of a prosperous,19th century childhood.  But go inside and climb the stairs and you will soon find the pretty nostalgia undercut by currents that are much sharper and blacker. The dolls are stunning but they are not necessarily cosy.

Wax can give a doll a death-like sheen.  Others have the white skin and rosey cheeks of the consumptive.  (I am reminded of something I once read, that in 19th century London the doll-making families, the Bazzoni, the Montani and the Pierotti, who all specialised in dolls made from wax, used their own children’s hair and modelled the dolls’ faces from those of their own children.  It is a feature of the dolls’ story that it drifts very quickly into strange waters.)

Pollocks, in short, is full of ghosts.

But I am here today to look at the optical toys – the magic lanterns and the Praxinoscope, a toy from the 1870’s that you could spin round faster and faster until it seems to unfold a moving story.  What I love about these toys is that it was from these that the mighty, 20th century cinema industry evolved.  (And if, at this point, you go down on your knees and peer closely at the back of the case you will see one of the original lantern slides, showing a dancing devil in a blue jacket. He is horned and tailed, and is tapping his cloven heels in rhythm with a dancing girl.)

All museums are about lost worlds but children’s museums are about lost worlds doubled, because the children have grown up and gone, whilst Pollocks feels removed a third time, because it stands outside the current of mainstream museum development.

Something curious happens to museums when they don’t change. They become less about a dialogue between past and present and more of an intense hit of ‘pastness’.  And whilst I love that hit of ‘pastness’ and would defend the right of every museum to be exactly what it wants to be, there are times when I would want Pollocks to change a little.

I would like it to be a bit more, well, playful.  I would love to see a magic lantern projection so that I could see the dancing devil strutting his stuff. (So not modern technology but more insight into how the 19th century technology worked.)  And I would love it to communicate more and to help me understand  more about the strange world on which it is a window, the world of lost childrens’ childhoods.