Mechanical marvels move into the Museum

Forty special clockwork characters have been ticking, springing and racing their way to Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood.

Michael and robert
Michael Start demonstrates Robert the Magician

The unique collection of mechanical marvels - including Robert the Magician, a piece of Parisian automata dating to 1870 (pictured) - feature in a free exhibition in partnership with the House of Automata.

‘It’s Alive! Mechanical Marvels from the House of Automata’ is open at the Museum of Childhood from tomorrow (22 June) until 18 September.

All of the automata treasures come from the collection of Michael and Maria Start who are together known as the House of Automata.

Their clockwork display also includes a vodka drinking bear, an acrobat based on a famous Moulin Rouge performer, and exquisite feathered birds in gilded cages in an ‘automatic aviary’.

Maria and Michael Start said: “The people of Edinburgh’s historical fascination with anatomy and what constitutes life itself makes this city a very welcoming place for our mechanical life. We hope the exhibition at the Museum of Childhood will help people to understand a little more, what it means to be alive and ticking.”

The items are displayed alongside a new series of etchings by Edinburgh-based artist Robert Powell. His dream-like hand-coloured works are alive with strange and satirical characters, inspired by the House of Automata.

Robert Powell said:In etching ‘Pneuma: The Mechanical Egg’, I found automata to be a useful vehicle to explore very human themes - autonomy, learning, science and progress and the relationship between nature and mankind. Even the most fundamental questions as to what make us human.”

The Museum of Childhood is operated by the City of Edinburgh Council. Lynne Halfpenny, the Council’s Director of Culture, said: “Both beautiful and bizarre, these curious Victorian toys reveal incredible craftsmanship.

“This is the first time we have displayed such a wide range of mechanical toys in Edinburgh. Sourced by the House of Automata from all over the world, their collection features some of the quirkiest and impressive pieces we know of.

“A trip to the free display offers the perfect chance to visit our Museum of Childhood before it undergoes refurbishment later this year. Don’t miss it.”

Alice Sage, Museum of Childhood Exhibition Curator, explained: “In our age of artificial intelligence and microprocessors, the magic of clockwork remains so awe-inspiring. It’s very exciting to share this world-class collection of automata with our visitors. 

"In this exhibition, we look back to a time when craftsmen and philosophers alike grappled with the idea of mechanical life. In their workshops, automata makers used all their talents to create delicate, delightful machines whose only job was to entertain us. A century later, the beautiful machines still perform at the turn of a key.”

Famous makers including Vichy and Roullet-Decamps are represented in a display of mechanical animals. From proud strutting peacocks to performing elephants, these popular 19th Century gifts for children were exported across the world.

Younger visitors will enjoy operating six of the automata by hand - including a cheeky rabbit in a cabbage, chattering teeth and a bolting horse made of paper – while technically-minded museum-goers can enjoy seeing interior springs, gears and cams translate into realistic movement.

Research for this exhibition was made possible with Art Fund support.

Forty special clockwork characters have been ticking, springing and racing their way to Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood.

The unique collection of mechanical marvels - including Robert the Magician, a piece of Parisian automata dating to 1870 (pictured) - feature in a free exhibition in partnership with the House of Automata.

‘It’s Alive! Mechanical Marvels from the House of Automata’ is open at the Museum of Childhood from tomorrow (22 June) until 18 September.

All of the automata treasures come from the collection of Michael and Maria Start who are together known as the House of Automata.

Their clockwork display also includes a vodka drinking bear, an acrobat based on a famous Moulin Rouge performer, and exquisite feathered birds in gilded cages in an ‘automatic aviary’.

Maria and Michael Start said: “The people of Edinburgh’s historical fascination with anatomy and what constitutes life itself makes this city a very welcoming place for our mechanical life. We hope the exhibition at the Museum of Childhood will help people to understand a little more, what it means to be alive and ticking.”

The items are displayed alongside a new series of etchings by Edinburgh-based artist Robert Powell. His dream-like hand-coloured works are alive with strange and satirical characters, inspired by the House of Automata.

Robert Powell said:In etching ‘Pneuma: The Mechanical Egg’, I found automata to be a useful vehicle to explore very human themes - autonomy, learning, science and progress and the relationship between nature and mankind. Even the most fundamental questions as to what make us human.”

The Museum of Childhood is operated by the City of Edinburgh Council. Lynne Halfpenny, the Council’s Director of Culture, said: “Both beautiful and bizarre, these curious Victorian toys reveal incredible craftsmanship.

“This is the first time we have displayed such a wide range of mechanical toys in Edinburgh. Sourced by the House of Automata from all over the world, their collection features some of the quirkiest and impressive pieces we know of.

“A trip to the free display offers the perfect chance to visit our Museum of Childhood before it undergoes refurbishment later this year. Don’t miss it.”

Alice Sage, Museum of Childhood Exhibition Curator, explained: “In our age of artificial intelligence and microprocessors, the magic of clockwork remains so awe-inspiring. It’s very exciting to share this world-class collection of automata with our visitors. 

"In this exhibition, we look back to a time when craftsmen and philosophers alike grappled with the idea of mechanical life. In their workshops, automata makers used all their talents to create delicate, delightful machines whose only job was to entertain us. A century later, the beautiful machines still perform at the turn of a key.”

Famous makers including Vichy and Roullet-Decamps are represented in a display of mechanical animals. From proud strutting peacocks to performing elephants, these popular 19th Century gifts for children were exported across the world.

Younger visitors will enjoy operating six of the automata by hand - including a cheeky rabbit in a cabbage, chattering teeth and a bolting horse made of paper – while technically-minded museum-goers can enjoy seeing interior springs, gears and cams translate into realistic movement.

Research for this exhibition was made possible with Art Fund support.

Do you have any comments about this page?

Help us improve edinburgh.gov.uk

  • The City of Edinburgh Council will only use this email address to respond to any issues raised.