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Object in Focus: Shogi at Southend Central Museum

Iona Farrell of the Southend Central Museum tells us how an Object in Focus loan helped inspire an exciting new exhibition. 

I’m Iona Farrell and I volunteer with Southend Central Museum and the Beecroft Art Gallery, which are based in Southend, a seaside town in Essex.

At Southend Central Museum we have been lucky enough to have an exquisite Japanese shogi board on loan from the Horniman. This is part of the Object in Focus series and will be on display until the 18th of October.

Shogi, for those who don’t know, and I must admit I was pretty clueless before the loan, is similar to chess. This is an exciting game of tactics and once pieces are captured a player can replay them as their own, which some say is like soldiers switching sides in battle.

This shogi set has carved pieces painted with Japanese characters that have been carefully positioned to mimic the start of a game - so visitors can use their imagination to guess how the game would play out.

The loan has taken pride of place in the museum, so visitors are captivated by this intriguing object as they enter. Southend Museum displays local and natural history collections alongside a rotating exhibitions programme, and it has been brilliant having such a special artefact amongst the displays.

This object in focus inspired us to look within the Museum's own collection to draw out the history of games and create an exciting new exhibition – Toys and Games.

  • Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum, Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum
    Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum

A fellow volunteer and I were lucky enough to curate this exhibition and we decided to transform the space into a fun place for both young and old to delight in the stories of toys. There are lots of recognisable classics, with train sets and board games alongside some more unusual treasures such as toy theatres and magic sets.

Visitors can trace the chronology of toys as they accompany us in early life from simple building blocks through to complex engineering sets as we age and develop. The museum has also hosted a special Fun and Games event for children where they discovered the history of toys and played Victorian parlour games.

Whilst researching for the exhibition we were surprised that many games have ancient origins. Senet, which is believed to be the first board game ever, was played in Ancient Egypt over six thousand years ago. Shogi, in its earliest form, dates back to the 10th century and the Horniman’s set is thought to date from the early 19th century.

  • Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum, Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum
    Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum

One of the oldest pieces in the exhibition is a 19th century set of wooden building blocks. Like the shogi set it is formed of carved pieces, but these are used for the rather more simple activity of building towers. In the 19th century, the idea of linking play with learning accelerated but it hadn’t been until the late 18th century that toys like this were even created specifically for children.

We hope people will continue to enjoy discovering all about this shogi set and have as much fun as I did learning all about the history of toys.