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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 06:31 GMT
Curtains for toy theatre museum?
By Emma Griffiths
BBC News Online, London

Pollocks Toy Museum
The shop and museum occupies a listed 18th Century corner house
Printer Benjamin Pollock has been linked to toy theatres in London since 1876, but the museum named after him could finally close within months, barring a last-minute windfall.

Tucked behind Goodge Street Tube station, central London, is one of the city's quaintest and quirkiest museums.

Spread over two floors, six small rooms and several winding staircases, the walls of Pollock's Toy Museum are covered with an estimated 20,000 exhibits dating back more than a century.

Rocking horses, Hornby train sets, "penny dreadfuls", French tin soldiers, Muffin the Mule, spinning cones and Russian folk toys are crammed on to all available wall space.

In the ground-floor shop, the walls are stacked with jars of novelties and trays of marbles, puppets and puzzles.

With its creaky floorboards and information sheets taped to boards on string, it is a far cry from London's larger, more hi-tech museums.

If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's
Author and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson

"People do phone up and say: 'Is it interactive?'," says manageress Gabrielle Warden, with a smile.

"It's quirky. The children are unable to touch the toys because they are old and wouldn't last five minutes. They are all behind glass but they are visible from the ground up."

Despite this, word of mouth has spread and the museum pulls a steady stream of visitors - more adults than children - from all over the world. Last year it had 27,500 people through its doors.

"We came to London four years ago, and when we went back to the States someone asked if we had gone to the toy museum," said US tourist Susan Higgins, who was visiting with her family from Charlotte, North Carolina.

"This time they said we had to go."

Pollock's has been selling Victorian theatre prints and toy theatres since 1876.

Benjamin Pollock's small shop in Hoxton, east London, did a brisk trade in them for 60 years until 1940.

Manageress Gabrielle Warden in the toy shop
Mrs Warden has worked on and off at Pollock's since she was 17
Author Robert Louis Stevenson sung the shop's praises in his essay A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured, writing: "If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's, or to Clarke's of Garrick Street."

When Marguerite Fawdry stumbled upon the remaining stock in 1956, she bought it all up and opened up in Monmouth Street, moving to Scala Street 13 years later.

These days Pollock's, an educational charitable trust, is run on a shoestring.

The painted facade, which won it a Brighter London award in 1973, is flaking, the museum cannot afford to advertise and staff have known for six years that its future was uncertain.

A plan to move to new premises in Greenwich a year ago fell through when Pollock's did not attract enough funding.

As big London museums are now given government money to allow free entry, some visitors balk at the idea of paying the 3 adult entry fee.

But government or lottery funding brings its own conditions and Pollock's wants to retain its independence.

"We have kept it going through thick and thin by reducing wages, it's a labour of love," said Mrs Warden, who has worked on and off at Pollock's for decades.

"Places like this have character, everything's becoming 'identikit' in every city, the same shops, everything - it's all to do with money, the costs of renting or buying are astronomic."

'Teetering on brink of closure'

Its lease is up at the end of March, and unless it can find 250,000 to buy the freehold and upgrade the building, it could be curtains for the toy theatre in Scala Street.

Helen Wilkinson, policy officer at the Museums Association, said Pollock's was one of many independent museums under threat across the UK.

She said many suffered along with the rest of the tourism industry after 11 September 2001 and have yet to feel the benefits of additional government investment.

"The financial situation for a lot of them is fairly hand to mouth, they often are permanently teetering on the brink of closure," she said.

"Kilmartin House in Scotland, which is one of the more innovative independent museums, has been 'about to close' for the last three or four years. Its situation is fairly fragile.

"I think generally the future isn't that rosy for independent museums."

If it cannot raise the money to buy the freehold, Pollock's will have to pack up its wax dolls, magic lanterns and Stingray models and will look around for another site.

But, despite the fact there is barely room to swivel a pushchair, staff hope they can find a way to stay in their creaky corner house.

Pollock's in pictures
19 Feb 04  |  Photo Gallery
Smaller theatres under threat
15 Jan 03  |  England

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