Scary Toys

My favourite section of Hove Museum & Art Gallery is the children’s toy collection upstairs. Not because of how informative or cute it is but because it’s terrifying. Never mind the stuff in pickle jars in the Booth Museum, if you want to be thoroughly disconcerted, with an itchy post-horror film feeling for days afterward, choose a quiet weekday morning and go check out the dusty childhood Victoriana upstairs at Hove.

The visuals, victuals and rituals of Victorian childhood – the toys above all – are just a relentless fear fest. Like old-time clowns, right? You know instantly that a clown isn’t going to be a nice fun thing splattering custard pies, no, it’s going to eat your face.

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Looking back from the perspective of today’s hyper-technological – digitised and above all plasticised – normalcy, it’s interesting to think about how different tropes from our domestic history have soaked into our psyche as being universally horrible, when they were clearly intended to be nice distractions. The stuff given to kids in Victorian times falls squarely into that category.

The history of cinema is littered with those references but it’s the raw material too: it’s hard to over-emphasise the contrasting feel brought to children’s things by the arrival of brightly coloured plastic, replacing greying wood and cotton. Modern improvements in electric lighting makes a huge difference as well; check out how gloomy it would be to live in a doll’s house 150 years ago, these guys are well bored. No TV even…

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One exhibit in particular brings home the gothicky quirk of cultural resonance: the split-in-half nursery installation. It’s a mocked up display of a child’s bedroom that has been split down the middle and glitched forward in time 140-odd years, so that one half is modern, while the other half is Victorian. Approximately the same toys are placed on each side, so that you can directly compare the old and the new.

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Weirdly, even the ‘modern’ half of the bedroom, as it ages, starts to gather the same hint of menace in its dusty cultural resonance (kids’ stuff changes incredibly fast these days, this set-up looks pre-Buzz Lightyear to me). It’s funny as well: a treacle black comic travesty of twisted history that would honestly be equally at home in the Jeff Koons exhibition (and much more fun than Tracey Emin’s famous bed).

Plastic simply doesn’t age the same way. Perhaps future generations will attach the same shiver factor to broken electronics, as we gradually prize what’s on-screen above all else.

The sheer weight of evil of this Victorian half-a-nursery and the imaginative possibilities of a bedroom split down the centuries, were almost too much for me. At least now I understand why the upstairs of Hove Museum is stuffed full of DO NOT RUN signs The best horror cinema lasts long after you leave the picturehouse. I’ll be recovering from the children’s nursery exhibition for a long time.

Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence

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