We all like a bit of nostalgia (well, I used to, but it’s not the same now) and I had long looked forward to a visit to this, the National Trust Museum of Childhood. Friends had waxed lyrical about it and the sign always flashed by provocatively whenever driving along the A50. So the anticipation was similar to that experienced ahead of a promised trip to the toy shop – of course it was.
Before we go any further, I should remind my regular reader that A Bit About Britain is sworn to objectivity (mostly). Because the visit to Sudbury Hall and the National Trust Museum of Childhood was hugely disappointing. On top of that was a slight sense of guilt about not enjoying it more, as there is certainly plenty to see and a great deal of trouble has been taken to arrange the museum. Maybe it isn’t arranged as expected (whatever that was), but, anyway, the logic of the layout somehow escaped me. Plus, I confess to an uncomfortable feeling of being lectured at, and slightly patronised, both by the printed material and some of the overzealous staff – who seemed to be everywhere. It was like being watched and pounced on by pushy sales assistants. One of the purposes of my visit was to quietly wallow in reminiscences; if I needed help doing that, I would have asked. I certainly did not feel the need to participate in an oral examination. One member of staff did tell me, in tones most of us reserve for eleven year-olds, “Children used to endure appalling conditions, you know.” Really? I had no idea.
At this juncture, I should point out that the Sudbury Museum of Childhood is exactly that – it is not a toy museum. So it does set out to cover the experience of childhood – and this unsurprisingly includes significant information on the appalling conditions endured by children through the centuries. Perhaps some of us occasionally need to be reminded how lucky we have been and that childhood is often far from the universally precious time it should be, even today. The museum does try to explore the changing nature of childhood. So, younger visitors can pretend to be a chimney-sweep or attend a Victorian classroom. There is an attempt to look at other cultures too, which might have been more absorbing; as it was, it seemed to me rather like a well-meaning gesture to minority interests.
If you want to see toys, though, they are there in abundance. You can check out the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, Dinky Car or Barbie that used to be your pride and joy, as well as get all misty-eyed about the things your kids or grandkids used to play with. And some of the older exhibits are truly amazing – a terracotta doll, for example, from 400BC – it is mind-blowing, and slightly disturbing, to imagine a child playing with it all those years ago.
However, on the whole I’m afraid I switched off fairly early on. Of course, it must be hard for serious museums to engage with and not bore the pants off the very young, whilst at the same time not alienating their mature market. Most museums strike the balance pretty well – though I have a general concern that many are becoming more tabloid in nature. But Sudbury’s Museum of Childhood, in my view, is almost entirely geared toward a juvenile audience. Perhaps that is at it should be; perhaps not.
Wondering if I was the only grumpy old sod in the world, I was pleased to see that at least one person on Trip Advisor appeared to be just as curmudgeonly about the place. But in fairness, most recent reviews from people visiting with children are quite positive. Many commented particularly favourably on the play area outside – and I must confess that this did look rather good (though is that part of the museum?). I should also add that our visit was made in 2012 – things may have changed since that time.
The National Trust Museum of Childhood is housed in the converted servants’ wing of Sudbury Hall, a fine-looking 17th century Jacobean mansion also open to visitors. Unfortunately, Sudbury Hall was unexpectedly closed until 1pm on the day we visited. No explanation was offered, the National Trust demonstrating, not for the first time, its peculiar skill in customer relations.
The house was home of the Lords Vernon and allegedly has some interesting plasterwork, a fabulous staircase and a wonderful long gallery – but I couldn’t really say. We wandered round the grounds…which are pleasant enough. Nice lake; loads of birds; enjoyable parlkand. Regrettably, the A Bit About Britain roadtrip had to be elsewhere before 1pm, so Sudbury Hall missed out this time.
A couple of tips if you do visit – the car park is a little distance from the house and the museum. There is a transfer service. You can buy separate, or joint, tickets to visit the house and the museum.
Pocket-sized information about Sudbury Hall and the National Trust Museum of Childhood on the attraction directory.