Friday, July 5, 2013

Children versus childhood

Just woke (alone in a quiet cool NYC apartment. Not a Cheerio on the floor!) and decided to post a few thoughts after reading late last night:

Thinking about children, childhood, parents (mothers, fathers, other care givers) in terms of material culture and in particular in museum collections. What can we find?

Visiting the Yale University Furniture Study the other day, our workshop leader noted that the painting on early 19th century fancy chairs not uncommonly involved the work of women and children. (In the case of a particular chair manufacturer, it also involved the work of convicts. Rather enterprising, I thought.)

So, the painting on chairs, which might be displayed as an example of decorative arts, domestic interiors, New England history, or early American industry, is an artifact also of children's lives. Sharon Brookshaw, in her 2009 article, "The Material Culture of Children and Childhood," notes that the UK's National Trust Museum of Childhood had displayed work implements and products from industries like lace-making in which children significantly participated.

Contemporary expectations about children and childhood can prevent us from seeing their material traces, especially from the past.

Historian Philippe Aries famously asserted in Centuries of Childhood (1962) that although children existed, childhood had not in the Middle Ages. Following Aries, scholars now distinguish between "children" and "childhood," but both terms are understood to refer to individuals / groups (children) and experiences (childhood) that are largely cultural and social. The idea that children are (physically and / or psychologically) immature is itself culturally and socially defined. Brookshaw (2009) notes that the word infant derives from the Latin in-fans or "not speaking."

"Children" and "childhood" become used to reference different sets of perspectives - one centered on those defined as children, and the other on adults who importantly and meaningfully interact with children and impose on them ideas and practices about what children are and ought to be.

"Children represent an interesting case in terms of material culture as, although much of the material world they interact with is made deliberately, purposefully and is reflective of the culture from which it originates, the objects we most commonly associate with this group were not made or controlled directly by its members, but rather are imposed on it by another group: adults" (Brookshaw 2009: 367)

One example: Toys (and Brookshaw discusses the problems with their collection in museums).

Another example (which especially interests me): "the material culture of parenthood: items that parents feel obliged to buy for their children that the child may not necessarily want or even need" (Brookshaw 2009: 368).

A collection of rattles at the New-York Historical Society. Artifacts of children, childhood, or parenthood?

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