Children's Lives

Hugh Cunningham ponders our enduring nostalgia for childhoods past and asks if we still yearn for a Romantic ideal

March 29, 2012

Credit: Charity/William Adolphe Bouguereau

Children’s Lives

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Until 10 June

Enter this exhibition of children’s lives from the 18th century to the present day and you are confronted by a large mural - a blown-up photo from the 1960s - of six children looking down at you and proclaiming that “Sparkbrook is our home”. The children are confident and in control and you begin to sense that this may indeed be an exhibition of how children have seen and experienced their lives, rather than of how adults have pictured, imagined and tried to shape them. It ends with a space curated by pupils from Birmingham schools telling us about their lives, the vital prop a bedroom, the locus for childhood after the spread of central heating.

But it’s never easy to keep the focus on the child’s point of view. Exhibitions such as this, and the museums of childhood dotted around the country, are dependent on what they possess or can persuade others to lend. Birmingham is fortunate in what it possesses, and the curators have been imaginative and resourceful in bringing together material from art galleries, libraries and archives. A partnership between the University of Birmingham, the city’s archives and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, it is a considerable advance on what passes for the history of childhood in museums. There are portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds, a coroner’s inquest on an eight-year-old whose clothing caught fire as she reached into the chimney for soot to clean her teeth, a letter sent to a headteacher in 1942 to be opened only in the event of invasion (and still unopened), and a rich range of photographs. But such material is almost entirely generated by adults, and does little to justify the claim made on the exhibition leaflet that it lets “childhood through the ages speak for itself”.

The exhibition is organised thematically. Placing the Sparkbrook children in juxtaposition to Gainsborough’s 1770s portrait of a demure Isabelle Bell Franks, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Study for the Beloved, Head of a Black Boy from the 1860s and George Frederick Watts’ terrified Little Red Riding Hood of 1890, and setting them alongside texts from John Locke to John Bowlby, invites us at the outset to think of the range of childhood experience, to ask “What is a child?” From there we are taken into sections titled “At home”, “Outside”, “In care?”, “On the move” and “Imagination and creativity”, each of them with an underlying chronology.

Broadly the exhibition conforms to an established narrative about childhood over the past 300 years, and one that has a compelling quality. It’s a story that starts with Locke and Rousseau (what do philosophers now have to tell us about childhood?), sets up an idealised and innocent childhood with the Romantic poets and Reynolds’ The Age of Innocence (c.1788), and then, with Dickens, contrasts this ideal with the life of an Oliver Twist or a Little Jo. The boy chimney sweeps (there’s a model of a chimney to be climbed), the children working in factories, mines and brickyards, the “street arabs” living and working on the streets, all attracted the attention of contemporaries and were perceived as victims in need of rescue, as “children without childhood”, a concept probably unimaginable before the Victorians. The rescue in its ideal form took children from work to school, but it reached beyond that, identifying children who were not “normal”, who were thought to need care in specialised institutions, hospitals, asylums, reformatories and orphanages, or were sent overseas to Canada and Australia.

For those still in Birmingham, life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries became better. Bill Brandt, commissioned by the Bournville Village Trust, photographed the new domestic life that the philanthropy of the Cadburys had made possible, contrasting the dark slums with the light and airy homes of Bournville. And in these homes children could play the new board games and read the classics of the golden age of children’s literature.

This story was formulated and told as one of progress. “The story of English children”, wrote the poet Sylvia Lynd in the unpromising year of 1942, “is a story that moves towards a happy ending.” The exhibition is alert to the problems with the story, pointing up the gendering of childhood; the hard life of those who, like gypsies, didn’t conform to what was becoming thought of as “normal”; the continuing poverty of many; the impact of institutionalisation on children; the eugenics that underlay reforming efforts. More, perhaps, could have been made of the poor health and early deaths of many children, the latter one of the most striking contrasts with today. But broadly the story is one of progress.

Feral and toxic?

Yet there is a problem. What happened after the Second World War? Was progress sustained? Probably it was, or was thought to be, up to some point in the 1970s. But thereafter childhood has been seen as a problem - with children now depicted as obese, sexualised, in thrall to commercial entertainment and, if they’re not couch potatoes, then liable to be feral. Childhood, as an extract from the author and former headteacher Sue Palmer reminds us, is now thought to be “toxic”.

Museums and archives are much better at representing what happened a hundred years ago than what happened 10 or 20 years ago. The exhibition reflects this. There are some fine photos that Nick Hedges took for Shelter in the early 1970s, and it’s never difficult to assemble a collection of toys from recent decades, but it would be hard for anyone visiting to come away with much sense of childhood over the past half-century. And there’s certainly no happy ending in sight.

Why are we so interested in the childhood of the past? There are a good dozen museums of childhood, but I know of none devoted to, say, adolescence and youth or old age. It’s partly that there’s a material culture that is very specific to childhood, especially to the early years - the prams and feeding bottles and dolls that constitute the bulk of the collection of most museums. We subject children at primary school to an imagined day in a Victorian school, perhaps to make them feel appreciative of the present. But there’s also nostalgia, a kind of good-old-days feeling, about childhoods of the past. It is well represented in the photographic genre of children playing in the street in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost traffic-free, the children engaged in those games that Iona and Peter Opie so assiduously collected, the photographs depict a triumph of the human spirit against a backdrop of glowering tenement buildings. It seems innocent, that quality that adults have lost.

The exhibition could be read as a journey from Sir Joshua Reynolds to Sue Palmer, from Romantic ideal to present-day toxicity, but it’s equally possible to see both its contents and its very existence as testimony to the continuing power of Romanticism. It was Romanticism that shaped the story with the descent into the hell of the Industrial Revolution and then the restoration of childhood to children. And it is the ideal of the Romantic child that makes us so unhappy about the childhood of the present.

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