If you go down to the Bowes today, you’re sure of a big surprise…

Summer holidays are calling! And with the opening of new permanent exhibition Dolls, Bears & Robots, look no further than The Bowes Museum for a fun day out for the whole family.

Created in collaboration with partner museum Beamish, the new displays take a colourful and charming look at the history of children’s toys and games from the 19th century to the present day. It’s sure to fascinate and delight minds young and old!

Chipperfields circus
Chipperfields circus

The eponymous dolls, bears and toy robots take pride of place across several display cases. Dolls come in all shapes, sizes and costumes; from the rudimentary early 19th century ‘table leg’ dolls, carved with love by a family member, to those with angelic porcelain heads and fine dresses, complete with delicate lace trimmings, even brooches and pendants!


There are more unusual pieces too – a demure nun doll with her rosary (a far cry from the modern-day Barbie!), dolls with moulded wax head and hair and some vibrantly-coloured Italian ‘Lenci’ (felt dolls).

Naturally, doll accommodation is not overlooked. The exhibition has four dollhouses, including a remarkable Tudor House (an 1825 recreation of the home of Henry Norreys – soldier and son of a courtier to Henry VIII) and an early 20th century house fully-furnished with faux-marble busts on the fireplace, a fur rug in the bedroom and meat, milk and jam on the kitchen table. There are also beautiful examples of miniature furniture displayed in their own right. My favourites were a tiny monogrammed trunk, a luxurious silver toilette table and a table and chair set made entirely of feathers!

Contrasting with the domestic focus of the dolls and dollhouses (most designed for girls’ use), the ‘toys for boys’ reveal a very different destiny. Lead soldiers with a castle to defend, a building block set decorated with images of grand buildings and board games with ambitious titles. It’s not hard to guess the careers in store for the youngsters who received games such as ‘The Little Accountant’ and ‘The New Game of Stock Exchange’!

Marching band
Marching band

The bear showcase has a selection of bears of different gender, size and dress put into context with two heart-warming stories around the development of their production: that of Theodore Roosevelt (the original ‘Teddy’) and Margarete Steiff. The adjoining showcase explores the impact of the film and television era on the production of toys and the development of merchandising, using well-loved characters such as Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Bagpuss and Muffin the Mule as examples.

Muffin, Felix, Teddy
Muffin, Felix, Teddy

If you prefer your toys less furry and more futuristic, the robots won’t disappoint! From Lilliput – the very first robot toy, with wind-up walking mechanism – through to a menacing toy Cyberman and even R2D2. The robots are complemented by some wonderful examples of clockwork toys in the neighbouring case. There’s a natural focus on transport – a German-made ‘Tut Tut’ car, a clockwork speedboat, even a Victorian lady on roller skates. Not to mention the marvellous musical clockwork objects, of which the ‘kiddyphone’ – a diminutive gramophone poised to play Rule Britannia – is a lovely example.


The dolls, bears and robots are certainly a winning combination. But don’t just take my word for it, take a trip to the Museum and see for yourself!

Want more reasons to visit? Remember that there’s free entry for children under 16, and Dolls, Bears & Robots is housed in a special child-friendly room, complete with some handling examples of wind-up and spinning toys for something a bit more interactive.

Do you have a favourite from the exhibition? We’d love to hear! Get in touch with comments and photos on Twitter and Facebook.

By Lorna Urwin, Marketing Volunteer


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