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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Museum of Childhood

A boy looking at old toys in the museum at Sudbury Hall and the National Trust Museum of Childhood, Derbyshire
Visitors at Sudbury Hall and the National Trust Museum of Childhood | © National Trust Images/John Millar

On 24 June 2024, the Museum of Childhood will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Over the past five decades, thousands of children and adults have visited, experiencing a journey through childhood across the ages with family, friends, and school groups.

Though the museum is well-known for its Victorian schoolroom and chimney experiences, it has evolved significantly since its opening. Recently, the staff at The Children's Country House at Sudbury welcomed Carrie Paechter, who was a teenager when the museum first opened in 1974. Carrie, along with her cousins Jo and Carey and friends David and Paul, played a pivotal role in the museum's opening by working on a 'Fantasy Exhibition' for children, by children.

Carrie fondly recalled how different the museum was back then, highlighting its transformation and the contributions she and her cousins made to the exhibition, which she shared with us in the following interview.

How did you become involved in the museum?

In 1973, as the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury was being set up, the idea for a ‘Childhood Fantasy’ exhibition emerged. Derby College students were commissioned to create it, and a meeting was organised at Nottingham University by my aunt, a child psychologist, to brainstorm ideas. Inviting her daughters, their friends, and myself, we at first just discussed our ideas, but were soon handed the task of creating the exhibition.

We spent weekends at Sudbury, forming a tight-knit group. My cousins Carrie and Jo, our friends David, Paul, and, in the early stages, Joanna, and I, used to be transported on a Friday evening to Sudbury in my dad's VW van (which was very 70’s) and picked up on the Sunday, and we worked tirelessly.

We were given a budget, most of which went on a massive bead curtain for the entrance to the display, and we were given a flat to stay in. We used to bring all our own food: stews, cakes, cereals, tea, sugar, and milk. Somehow, we balanced our schoolwork with the project. Despite the challenges, we cherished our time together, creating something special and having a unique experience.

Child playing in the chimney in the Work Gallery at The Children's Country House at Sudbury, Derbyshire
The chimney is always a big hit with children | © National Trust Images/John Millar

What sorts of things did you do?

I don't recall the exact start date, and we might have had planning meetings beforehand. We worked right up until the opening of the Museum, tweaking things as the press arrived. We just dove in, brainstorming and bouncing ideas off one another. Carey created a scene behind a one-way mirror, Paul made wood panelling in which we outlined creatures formed from the wood grain. There was a mousehole, made by Jo, complete with furniture, decorations and a family of felt mice. Each of us took on different projects. I remember us making a rainbow with a pot of gold from papier-mâché, which we then painted. It was a highly creative process. We'd leave lists of the bigger jobs for the staff, and when we returned a few weeks later, everything was magically done, bringing our visions to life.

How different was it back then?

The 70’s were a very different time, we had little to no adult supervision. We were visited by the head of art at Bilborough School once or twice the curator of Sudbury Hall, occasionally popped in to check we had everything we needed but other than that we were really left to our own devices.

What are some of the key memories that you have from this project?

The house used to be open only during certain times of the year. When we first visited, it was closed. So, it was really big deal when it finally opened to the public, it felt strange. My main memories from that period aren't just about completing the project; they include the sleepovers we had. We would bring our mattresses into the museum and sleep on the floor. One evening, we even played a game of tag in the Long Gallery. On another day climbed onto the roof and waved at the passing visitors! We were told off as we were making visitors want to come and join us up there!

Have you been back to visit since?

I used to visit here whilst I was doing the project every three weeks for about six months. After the opening, we took a trip on the bus, maybe a year later, and decided to visit during regular hours. But I didn't return until about 15 years ago when I brought my children here. It felt very odd returning and seeing how much had changed but also what hadn’t changed. The museum has changed a lot since then, with a clearly marked visitor route now, and what was the entrance to our area is now the exit. I think the chimney was here from very early on and there was a nursery. The schoolroom has been here for years too; I believe it was actually one of the first things they did in the museum. I notice that although our mousehole has now gone, you have used the idea elsewhere in the museum – though ours had a lot more in it than yours do!

Join us at The Children’s Country House at Sudbury as we celebrate the Museum of Childhood's 50th anniversary from 28-30 June. Enjoy live music, street artists, Junior Conservation Stations, and more! Admission is free with general entry.

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