The darker side of childhood

Would you let your child play with these toys?

The Stuff of Nightmares is at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

The darker side of childhood

The darker side of childhood

First published in Exhibitions East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Photograph of the Author by

Toys are meant to be our childhood friends but what if your teddy scares you stiff?

My daughter was terrified of Sylvester, a very large soft toy version of the cartoon cat. I would often find it knocked over in her room or stuffed into a cupboard at night. Her brother was equally disquieted by Tickle Me Elmo, a vibrating version of the Sesame Street character, though I don’t think it was the motion that bothered him as much as Elmo’s crazed, staring eyes. As for me, I can’t even look at a clown without breaking out in a sweat.

Naturally, we would find much to relate to in The Stuff of Nightmares, a display of the maddest and baddest objects from the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood’s collection.

Apparently we are not alone in our fears, the museum’s community development officer Teresa Hare Duke tells me she used to be scared of a fluffy bunny.

“I had a toy rabbit with velvet trousers that was completely innocuous but I was petrified of it,“ says Teresa, who has worked at the site for the past eight years. “I think it was because of its long whiskers; I’d hide it if I came across it.“ Real or imagined, youthful fears are powerful things. Along with items from the museum’s archives including an identity parade of grotesques and creepy dolls, the exhibition features a number of paintings by local artists Katherine Tulloh, Ruth Weinberg, Daniel Bell and Sharon Brindle, which takes a closer look at the playthings of innocents.

Teresa tells me the main exhibit is an installation made by local schoolchildren and adult students working alongside museum staff and artists.

Some people disapprove of the grisly endings in Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Teresa Hare Duke

“Children from Cayley Primary School have made scary birds and plants, while pupils from Moorpeth Secondary School have made hybrid toys that are part doll part animal. Like in Toy Story they customised the toys in workshops, so there’s a doll’s head on the body of a cow or a horse and a swan’s head on a doll’s body.“ Together they have transformed the Front Room Gallery into a sinister forest. This 3D installation complete with spooky sounds creates the dark setting for a re-telling of The Brothers Grimm’s tale of Fundevogel, about a boy and a girl whose friendship helps them overcome frightening circumstances.

“Some people disapprove of the grisly endings in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but most children quite enjoy being frightened,“ explains Teresa. “It’s the basis of an awful lot of children’s literature and film but it’s not about a frightening real world, it’s a fantasy world that taps into the subconscious.

“It’s interesting to see how subjective fear is. What people think is nasty or not is incredibly subjective. The adults tend to react more than the children.“ The Stuff of Nightmares runs until February next year. Visitors can also enjoy the museum’s annual Summer Festival on Sunday, August 7 from 11.30am-4.30pm where there will be stalls, games and craft activities, rickshaw rides, face painting, clay model making and entertainment.

V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green. Details: 020 8983 5200, www.museumofchildhood.org.uk

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