Children's Lives: from the 18th century to the present day

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest: Professor Ian Grosvenor
Recorded: 06/03/2011

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, I’m here with Professor Ian Grosvenor who’s Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Cultural Engagement and Professor of Urban Educational History at the University of Birmingham.  Hello Ian.

Ian:  Hi.

Andy: Now we’re here today to talk about the ‘Children’s Lives’ Exhibition which is going to run from the 24th March to the 10th June in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Gas Hall and it’s also part of Birmingham’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad programme in 2012.  What’s the exhibition aiming to explore and reveal about childhood over the past few hundred years? What’s it about?

Ian:  The exhibition is essentially a partnership project between the University of Birmingham, the City Archives in Birmingham and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and essentially the exhibition tries to show that childhood has been constructed, that what it is to be a child is always determined by adults and it tries to map out over time how that definition of what it is to be a child, what a child can do and can’t do, has changed over time and also it tries to tease out where possible whether or not we can hear the individual child in the past or not, which is always a very difficult thing to try and do anyway with anyone in the past I think. 

Andy: What kind of things will be on display in the exhibition and what are the stand-out exhibits in your mind?

Ian: What makes this exhibition unique I think, it’s probably the first exhibition in the UK that actually draws on archive material, you know, stuff on manuscripts, photographs, paintings, artefacts, you know, objects from the past, film – so it’s very much a multimedia representation of childhood in the past. In terms of things that stand out for me, when we were putting together the section about children on the move which is about evacuation for example, we looked at the evacuation school log books and one of these ones from a school that was sent into Shropshire I think it was now, I’m trying to remember, what you see in it is a printed sheet that was sent to their parents saying, you know, ‘the girls are OK or the boys are OK but they’re all missing home, they get a bit upset sometimes’ and so on, and then in one of these log books and it’s a log book for the boys school I think, there’s an envelope and this envelope says ‘Top Secret’ on the outside and you open the envelope and in there there’s some instructions to do with evacuation and there’s another envelope in there that’s sealed still and it says on the front ‘Only to be opened in case of invasion’. 

Andy: Wow. 

Ian: So that envelope has been unopened since probably 1939, 1940, something like that.  I mean I presume that envelope was sent to all schools that had evacuations but, you know, this one has never been opened and it’s kind of like thinking what does it say in a small brown envelope you should do if you’re invaded?

Andy: The urge to open that envelope must be extreme. 

Ian: Yes, it is! We talked about steaming it open but that’s a bit naughty really. 

Andy: Is it something you could hold up to the light maybe?

Ian: No, no, it’s a brown envelope. 

Andy: Ah, no.  It may remain a mystery then.

Ian: Yes, yes. 

Andy: It certainly sounds like you’ve got a diverse range of exhibits that sound absolutely fascinating.  In curating the exhibition what have you found have been the problems?

Ian:  If you’re trying to tell the story of childhood and children’s experiences and you want to try and be comprehensive and actually look across all the population, it’s quite easy to find paintings and photographs and letters to do with middle class families but when it then comes down to ordinary families, working class families or the poor, what you find is they only tend to appear in the record, in the archives in particular, when there’s a problem and so there’s a danger that you could present a very distorted picture of childhood if you’re a working class child in terms of all the problems, all the difficulties and not be able to show the affectionate relationships that were between parent and child and so forth and that’s quite a worry because of the very nature of what survives, the ephemera gets thrown away and so forth. We have one really nice film that’s called ‘Street Robins’ during the 1940s and it was shot in Oldbury near Birmingham and basically this is a fantastic silent film of children on the streets, at school, being happy together, enjoying their lives which is a really good corrective to all the negative stuff you tend to pick up in a lot of the documentation about children in the 1930s and 40s and so on.  

Andy: So do you feel that you’ve achieved that balance?

Ian:  It’s going to be down to I think the person who attends the exhibition but you have to kind of engage with that story and step back and ask yourself when you look at things, you know, why has this document come into existence? What does it tell us? Does it tell us the truth or is it a version of the truth?  Apparently people when they go to exhibitions they don’t always read the captions, they don’t always necessarily go the way you want them to go round the exhibition so therefore they will always come out with I think their understanding, their version of what they’ve seen.  But we hope that at the end of it they will come out with this question in their mind, ‘what is a child still and how do we understand childhood?’.  

Andy: When I was reading about the exhibition before this interview today I noticed that it said the exhibition will bring the voice of the child to life and draw the connections between the past and the present into sharper focus.  So I just wondered, what do you think are the connections and on the flipside, what do you think has changed dramatically in terms of childhood?    

Ian: I think it’s a very interesting question that because there’s a whole discussion going on now isn’t there about the idea of lost childhood, that children grow up too quick, that children are at risk in society and I think one of the things the exhibition shows is that that was the case in the past as well because if you were a working class child in the end of the 19th century you’d be expected to  be in work, to be working, and so you’d find evidence of 6 year olds, 7 or 8 year olds, working in brick factories and so forth. So that seems to me about a lost childhood also. It’s a different type of lost than contemporary childhood. You also find lots of examples of children at risk, so children on the streets were seen as being threatening if they were in groups. Similarly, children today if they’re in groups, you know, hoodies and so forth seem to be threatening. So in some ways there’s a similarity about this and people kind of talk about a ‘golden age’ don’t they always about what it was like, ‘I could always leave my door open, you know’.  Childhood has actually changed quite a lot because the affluence of society has changed and I think also the very fact that children are now consumers in ways they weren’t before. So manufacturers now make things for children in ways they didn’t do in the past, they continue to gender children because obviously lots of girls toys are pink and you find the 19th century was a very gender society and so forth. This is now built into, or commercialised in some ways, in terms of the way in which children engage with their present lives.  So I think what you find is there are enormous similarities between the two periods and the differences probably stem from the nature and way society itself has changed. 

Andy: One interesting thing that I noted about the exhibition is that it will also include a section on contemporary childhood in the 21st century which will be curated by young people from two local schools.   How are the young people who are curating that part of the exhibition going about recording and documenting their own childhood today?

Ian:  We saw this as a really important part of the exhibition because as we’ve already talked about, the majority of material that you see in the exhibition is produced by adults or adults remembering their childhood.  There's one or two small examples of children being creative in the past and we’ve got those bits and pieces but they tend to be very middle class families.  In terms of young people now, we wanted them to tell us what it is like to be a young person in the 21st century.  So the two schools have been working with a video artist, with some outreach workers from the city archives and so on, in a sense paralleling the way in which the exhibition itself has been developed. So there’s a group of children who are the recorders of what’s been going on, there’s a group of children who are going to be organising the display of the exhibition and there’s a group of children I think who are actually producing the materials and the aim will be that they want their story – and they call it their story – to become part of the archive when the exhibition finishes about what it is to be a child in the 21st century and essentially what they’ve gone for, because it seems to be central to their understanding of who they are, is they are recreating or creating a child or a teenager’s bedroom as in 2012 and they’re then going to put objects into that space which they think are typical of who they are. 

Andy: What kind of objects are they going to be putting into that space?

Ian: You get the impression it will be trainers, it will be some clothes - 

Andy: Mobile phones?

Ian: Mobile phones and so forth, a computer probably, but I still don’t know and so it will be very interesting to see what it is that they define themselves by. We’ll have to wait and see what they bring on the day the exhibition opens. 

Andy: Does it make you a bit nervous as curator that you don’t know some of those objects that are going into that bedroom?    

Ian: [Laughing] It certainly makes the people who are organising the exhibition, in terms of putting the display on, maybe slightly nervous but I think it will be fine. 

Andy: Professor Ian Grosvenor, thank you very much for joining me today.

Ian:  My pleasure. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.