The Magic Lantern

Curl up in the cosy atmosphere of the Museum of Childhood and hear tales of dreams and adventures, colourfully illuminated by a real Victorian magic lantern show…

First things first, I entered the museum feeling not much older than my six year old son I had in tow, excited to re-visit the toys and games of my own childhood. I wanted to share them with him – along with pointing out the things his grandparents and great-grandparents would have enjoyed.

Half way round I felt about ninety – literally – fielding questions like: ‘Did you have one of those, mummy?’ (A miniature 1880’s butcher’s shop) and, ‘Is that what you wrote on at school?’ (A slate and pencil). I tried to convince him I was more of the Sindy doll and Dinky toy era, but it fell on deaf ears. ‘You probably did have the toy shop and use the slate,’ he told me, ‘but you are so old you’ve forgotten.’

childhoodSuch sensitivities aside, Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood – the first in the world dedicated not just to toys and games but an entire history of childhood (clothing, schooling, health, holidays), makes for a fascinating outing across all generations. Anyone of my (ancient) age and beyond will delight in the nostalgia, and the younger element will get a handle on this curious life before iPads and Super Hero Lego.

The Museum also houses its own exhibitions and events, and this was actually our main reason for visiting. As part of Book Week Scotland, independent storyteller, Ailie Finlay, teamed up with the museum’s own Alice Sage, to provide family friendly tales and pictures from the museum’s own Victorian magic lantern.

An early type of image projector, the magic lantern uses painted pictures or photographs  on sheets of glass, a lens and a bright light source. Mostly developed in the 17th century, it used oil or electric light to project colourful slides in a darkened room – first for entertainment, later for education purposes.

lantern-pic-copyThis standard Magic Lantern in situ (pictured) was developed by Ernst Plank and made in Germany around 1900 – and is now refitted with an LED light. The slides housed in the museum date back to the 1880s-1900s.

Alliie’s storytelling, partnered with Alice’s use of the projector, kept a group of children spellbound, even more so when they were invited to take part in telling the stories; Little Red Riding Hood was a real hit.

In the Victorian nursery, Magic Lantern stories would have been a bedtime ritual, and that atmosphere prevailed here, as the viewings took place amongst the museum’s Bedtime Stories Quilt Project – a collection of quilts, ancient and modern, each telling a story of its own.

Afterwards, I asked the 6 year old for his final verdict; what did he like best? ‘The magic lantern story where the boy nearly got eaten by the witch,’ he said as if that was obvious. His only ciriticism of the museum was that he ‘wished he could touch more of the things in it.’

I knew I was pushing my luck, but I asked anyway: did he have a quote for Lothian Life? Indeed he did, reverting to type: ‘Tell them it’s interesting to see what very old people like mummies and daddies played with before their children got born.’

The Museum of Childhood collection was founded by Patrick Murray (1908-81), a passionate collector of toys and childhood objects who was also an Edinburgh Town Councillor. It is set in two historic buildings straddling South Gray’s Close on the Royal Mile. Both buildings were constructed in the 18th century. The eastern building was home to Edinburgh socialites, whilst the western building housed a theatre, and later an ironmongers.

Museum of Childhood: 42 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TG

Opening Times: Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 10am – 5pm; Sunday: 12pm – 5pm

For more information:

Tel: 0131 529 4142

Ailie Finlay is at


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