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MS. Today I spent a few happy hours at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. I first became aware of the museum when writing my history thesis at TU Delft; The Changing Face of Commerce in the Victorian City. My poor professor – I was obviously home-sick for London at the time!

Here’s what i wrote;

The Bethnal Green Museum, (1855-6, C.D Young & Co) originally sited in South Kensington, is representative of the lack of funds available for permanent Public buildings in Victorian London. The demountable iron construction was nicknamed “The Brompton Boilers” when it was first opened as the South Kensington Museum. Its unpopularity with the public was unsurprising, given the association between iron and glass structures and utilitarian functions. Victorian sensibilities required museum architecture of solidity and permanence but here the very opposite qualities were on display. The original façade of corrugated iron, expressed the three bays of the iron structure, giving the building a distinctly industrial character unsuited to its edifying purpose. After ten years the iron structure was replaced by permanent masonry buildings and was moved to Bethnal Green where it was re-erected and the profile of the “boilers” hidden behind a respectable brick facade by James William Wild in 1872.

Here’s a link for more on the Brompton Boilers.

Over the last ten years the museum has been through another transformation, lead by one of my favourite studios practicing in the UK today – Caruso St.John Architects. As described above, the Victorian museum had been thrown together quickly and with limited funds. While the brick facade lent the structure respectability, it failed to provide an entrance with any real civic presence. The need for a new frontage and foyer has been met with the addition of a long and low extension, which allows the shed-like form of the galeries to remain the dominant motif. A second storey has been cleverly concealed beneath the new foyer, housing much of the ancillary space required to serve a modern museum. The existing main hall and galleries have been carefully restored – but this process has not been too precious – with new practical elements, such as a lift and ramp, integrated with minimal fuss.

The new entrance is memorable without being brash and its carefully considered proportions afford the boilers a new clarity and presence. It respects the symmetry of the original while introducing a 4,3,4 rhythm to the new element – insetting the entrance to give the frontage focus and solidity. It is a delight to see both colour and ornament used with such ease and success in both the elevation and interior. The elevations are clad in natural stone tiles of soft purple, pink and biege set within a frame work of rich purple. Despite the variation in colour, the overall effect is very similar to the dark red brick of the original structure.

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Here’s a link to the architects’s website; http://www.carusostjohn.com/projects/victoria-and-albert-museum-childhood/

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