Friday 6 January 2017

Victorious Victoria and Albert

We've just returned from one of those sorts of afternoons that reminds me why I never want to move far from London, or its mind-blowingly brilliant museums. Yet again, it is time spent in a museum that might not always be a first choice for parents, that has yielded one of the most inspiring days for our young rabble. The Victoria and Albert was crowned Museum of the Year in 2016 and rightly so. It is a treasure trove of interesting, exquisite and unexpected things; a rabbit warren plunging straight into Wonderland. It's one of our favourite spaces and on every occasion we discover something new. I've written about it before, years ago, when we first discovered London's best kept secret toddler sunny day playground in the form of its courtyard. With a shallow central pool, which children are welcome to paddle in, lawns and a little cafe, it is a haven from the bustle of London and harbours rather an appropriate fin de siecle air of jolity and festival. We've also covered its great little educational backpacks in a post about animals in art (here).

Today's more wintery visit was rather unplanned. We showed up with a vague list of things the children wished to see, but we were rewarded with a Christmas-themed trail which took us on a tour to discover 12 objects and facts about Christmas around the museum. The beauty of this simple and hugely effective activity was that it directed us away from our normal well-trodden routes to look at items nestled within a huge range of collections. Starting from the central Christmas tree, we were signposted through the stunning Renaissance Galleries via an unusual Naplese crib, to the exquisite glass galleries  where we learned about the genesis of Christmas baubles (apparently once strings of small glass beads draped on German trees). We were then led past Trajan's column (much to the delight of Clara Button fans) and through to a display of Victorian Christmas cards. We learned that the first Christmas card was sent by the then - far too busy to write a traditional letter - Director of the V and A itself; an idea that in time caught on. We discovered mistletoe-themed Art Nouveau jewellery, St Nicholas hiding amongst a collection of biscuit tins and the partridge from the pear tree in silverware.

In the brilliant theatre galleries amongst the costumes and sets, we learned about the origin of crackers and that pantomimes come from ancient Rome when festivities allowed roles to be reversed and hierarchies subverted. Finally, we toured the picture galleries, where we were tasked with finding a family of carolers, located a Christmas dining set in the vast ceramics study collections and ended at a Christmas tree somewhere in the Tudor period.

We emerged with a better spatial awareness of the museum's vast corridors and new favourite areas for a return visit. We were also rewarded with a wonderful festive surprise - a performance of The Nutcracker for families. Abridged and danced by a young troupe from Highgate, supported by adult Nutcracker and Sugarplum Fairy, we were treated to a refreshingly interactive and intimate performance. Children were invited to dress the tree at Clara's party, dance with the ballerinas and meet the cast. It was an entirely joyful and bewitching experience for all involved.

The V and A is one of those museums where a small item can lead to huge inspiration, or you can focus on an era, a theme or follow a simple story around the vast collections. We've also read our way around the museum and gathered a range of books to bring the objects alive. Here's a selection of picture books to accompany a visit to the V&A - from costumes, tutus and home decoration to ceramics and 20th Century design.

First up; an interactive fashion guide so beautiful we wrapped it up for Culturebaby's recent birthday. Using photographs and archival information from the V&A's own collections, accompanied by illustrations by Daisy de Villeneuve, Fashion Mash Up contains timelines detailing the development of items from skirts and trousers to shoes and coats. It contains 75 press out clothes to add to a selection of stand-up models, backdrops for fashion shoots, stickers for accessorising, and a selection of unusual items for mix and matching and play.

Following the success of a jewellery history game using a £3 pack of V&A postcards (see here for how to create this activity), I'd intended to amass a dress version for the girls, who love this part of the collection. Happily this clever book does the job for me. The press-out garments can be lined up, examined and ordered. It's a brilliant addition to our history shelves.

Alongside this book I'd also recommend the simple but beautifully illustrated The Story of Costume by John Peacock.

Still on the topic of the fashion collections in the museum, there are few story books as exquisitely illustrated with details from a museum collection and as effective as the V&A's own Clara Button series by Amy de la Haye and Emily Sutton. We own Clara Button and the Wedding Day Surprise, which showcases a selection of bridal wear from the collection and extols the virtues of creativity and adaptation, and (the favourite) Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day. This gorgeous picture book usually comes with us on trips to the V&A, as it contains gorgeous illustrations of a range of spaces in the museum (including the exquisite cafe), as well as some iconic items for the children to spot. The story follows a creative little girl Clara who, on requesting a hat-themed day, is taken by her mother to the V&A. She takes with her a precious vintage hat (broken by her naughty brother) in the hopes that someone at the museum can help her fix it. She's rewarded by a behind-the-scenes hat extravaganza, and her brother (busy pretending the whole experience is tedious when in fact he's having a whale of a time) finds inspiration amongst the weapons and cast galleries - encountering the fabulous Tipu's Tiger and monumental Roman Trajan's Column.

Earlier in the year we received a thoroughly inspired fairy tale series, perfect for the little historian. With the best will in the world, multiple readings of fairy tales can border on the dull, but this brilliant little set from David Roberts and his sister Lynn Roberts-Maloney aims to re-invent classic tales in the style of various periods. Cinderella is retold in glorious Art Deco glamour with 30's costume, gramophones and Clarice Cliff pottery. Rapunzel is a '70s readhead, clad in platforms and bell-bottoms and imprisoned at the top of a brutalist tower-block with a collection of vinyls and a permanently broken lift.

Then there's the most recent (and cleverest) title: Sleeping Beauty: A mid-century fairy tale. Beginning in the 1930's at a Christening, and stretching to the 1950s for the 16th birthday, the illustrations are brimming with period detail. Protected from needles by her adoring aunts, Annabel dreams of seeing the future. Her wish unexpectedly comes true when she pricks her finger on the stylus of a record player - a gift from the evil Morwenna. Refreshingly the tale takes a twist and Sleeping Beauty is not rescued by a prince but by a girl 1000 years into the future named Zoe who has a passion from the past and scours the library for evidence of why a giant thorn-tree is found amidst a futuristic high-rise landscape. The aunts equally take on a delightful role as protectors who ultimately sacrifice themselves for their beloved ward. It's a great re-telling anyway, but the period details confirm this picture book offering as a 20th Century historical tour de force.

One more title worthy of mention for its stunning illustration and period details is Alice Melvin's beautiful Grandma's House from Tate Publishing. The inspiration for this simple story about a girl's search for her grandma throughout the old lady's beautiful house, was Alice's own childhood memories of such trips. A decade on from her Grandmother's death, the intricate details of items around this beloved destination show keen observation and great love. "Even now, over a decade since she died, I can close my eyes and retrace my steps with ease: moving from room to room, knowing exactly what I will see as I do so: the cow milk jug with the tiny bell around his neck; the little porcelain wren that lifted up to reveal three small bead eggs; the wooden apple with the tiny wooden tea set hidden inside; the garden path winding past the pear tree..." Both a tribute to a beloved family member and a great lens through which to view the objects before us in the museums cabinets, this simple books shows with ease the way in which each object is both imbued with a host of meanings and emotions and provides a new angle for us to search through the collections for items with a similar meaning for us too.

A lovely title I picked up in a charity shop recently is another great story about the decorative arts, and in this case one single object - a Delft Blue vase. Ingrid and Dieter Schubert's Delft Blue: a Vase for the Princess is from the Gemeente Museum in Den Haag. Lin, a Chinese mouse finds himself a stow-away on a shop bound for Holland - a country he finds utterly different from his home. He is befrended by a local mouse from the 'best potters in town' and introduced to Lin's tea ritual in a tiny Chinese porcelain set. Following some competition between the mice about the quality of Dutch vs Chinese ceramics, chaos ensues as a vase destined for a princess is broken. The mice set about using their joint expertise to create an amazing replacement. This is a gorgeous book and a great way to enable a child to access a genre of the decorative arts they may not have encountered properly before, and to encourage the close examination of a single object.

There are so many appropriate books to take in your bag for a trip to the theatre galleries at the V&A, and we regularly cover these on the blog, such as this brilliant series from James Mayhew on the a little girl Ella's adventures within the classical ballets, and Merberg and Bobber's Dancing with Degas, an introduction to depictions of ballerinas in art reviewed here. Here, I've selected two further titles - firstly a musical version from Usborne of Swan Lake, illustrated by Anna Luraschi. This is a favourite with the girls (alongside its sister version of the Nutcracker) as it offers six buttons to press with excerpts from the ballet to press as you move through the tale. It's a perfect title to explore in front of the stunning black swan tutu found in the galleries. I've also selected a recent pop-up edition of The Nutcracker from Walker Books by Niroot Puttapipat. For children of all ages, and indeed any adult, this simply told version of the classic story is gorgeously illustrated with characters in silhouette set against stunning skies and with splashes of coloured decoration. There is a final, exquisitely crafted, pop-up scene of the land of sweets. These theatrical images throughout the edition were inspired by the sets from the original 1892 production performed in St Petersburg. The descriptions are also simply beautiful. In this land snowflakes taste of rosebuds and raspberries, peppermint and honey; oceans are flecked with gold and "lollipops grew in the flowerbeds, lemonade flowed from the fountains, and a sherbet path twisted off into marshmallow mountains." The descriptions are sumptuous, lyrical and spellbinding. It's a great books to use as a basis for exploring the various stage sets featured in this gallery.

A big hit from our literary advent calendar this year was a beautifully bound edition of the Twelve Days of Christmas from Puffin Books and the V&A. The Museum has had a long association with Christmas festivities, seen in our tour of the collections. from the first Christmas card to the Christmas tree, which is commissioned from a well-known designer each year. This lovely edition is created from the Museum's collections of the work of Arts and Crafts Pioneer William Morris, and developed with illustrations to bring the song to life by Liz Catchpole. It's a stunning volume and one we will treasure well beyond childhood.

Finally, two great books on the joy of museum visits more generally are worth a quick mention. Firstly, the 2016 release of The Museum of Me by Tate Publishing is a clever book, which takes us on a canter through the types of museums and explores questions about why we collect and preserve objects. I've done a full review here, with extension activities about creating your own DIY museums at home.

We've also enjoyed the quirky Mi and Museum City by Linda Sarah. This unusually illustrated tale of Mi, who is a resident of the dull and uninspiring Museum City - full of boring museums about uninspiring things. Fun was banned, museums should be about important and grand things, said Mayor Boouf. Mi knew what made him happy and he set out to change things; to convince the authorities to allow the inhabitants to open museums about all the objects and activities that inspired them. From the weird to the wonderful (just like the V&A there were "museums about clothes you can wear and clothes you almost can't..." from the interesting and useless, to stackable and staircasey museums) there was something brilliant for everyone. It's a great book about value and the wonder thinking outside the box can create.

Disclaimer: We bought a good few of these titles, but we are grateful to Puffin Books for the Fashion Mash-Up and 12 Days of Christmas, to Phoenix Yard for Mi and Museum City, Walker Books for the Nutcracker and Pavilion for the fairytales. As always, all views are entirely our own.

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