Image: Children eating breakfast, by Lisel Haas. Image courtesy of Birmingham Archives & Heritage.
University of Birmingham
The Children’s Lives project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), was the first major project in Birmingham and the West Midlands to consider children’s lived experiences from the 18th century to the present day. The project consisted of a series of interrelated activities drawing on the nationally acclaimed collections of archives, artefacts, oral histories and film material relating to the lives of children in the past held by Birmingham Archives & Heritage, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery (BMAG) and the Media Archive of Central England. The project was led by Professor Ian Grosvenor, supported in the development of the exhibition by a Birmingham University Cultural Intern attached to BMAG and by an HLF-funded Skills for the Future postgraduate, Nicola Gauld. Key to engagement with the project was an exhibition in BMAG, which explored ideas of childhood and the city. It presented the diversity of the city in all its forms and drew extensively on Birmingham’s collections to bring the voice of the child out of the archive and museum. It also included a section on childhood in the 21st century curated by young people from two local schools and was supported by two blogs charting the project’s development; one run by the project team and the other sharing contributions of the school groups.
- The purpose of the project was to use the rich collections held by Birmingham Archives & Heritage, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery and the Media Archive of Central England to engage the public with the history of children’s lives since the 18th Century, and so provide the audience with a better understanding of their experiences. The history of childhood has, too often, failed to recognise how children’s lives are shaped by major events such as war or philanthropic and state interventions, as well as by social class, gender and ethnicity. The focus of historians has previously tended towards a privileging of the ‘voices’ of the official policy makers, professionals and administrators rather than with the ‘voices’ of the children. The aim was also to achieve this by working closely with each of the partners and the local children themselves, so building capacity in each of these areas (and in particular for the pupils of local schools). Families and ‘unheard groups’ were identified as key target audiences for the exhibition early in the project (not least because it is to them the exhibition referred), and the exhibition and surrounding communications (such as the project and schools blogs) tailored to ensure their engagement would be possible. Interviews, focus groups and surveys conducted and filmed over 3 days of the exhibition were planned and used in order to establish whether the target audiences had indeed attended and whether better understanding of children’s lives since the 18th century had been achieved; a comment book made available throughout the exhibition received uniformly positive feedback, particularly regarding the effectiveness of putting children’s (often neglected) experiences at the heart of the exhibition.
- Mutual benefits
- The project itself was designed to have an impact on each of the participants and partners from the curatorial, conservation and management teams within the partner organisations to the school pupils. For the partner organisations, working on the project meant that new material was identified for presentation and conservation, indeed a number of the items on display had never been so before. Through the exhibition new historical resources were also collected for storage in archives or use in future exhibitions, these included items recording ‘modern childhood’ produced by the partner schools and recordings of visitor’s memories of childhood gathered during the exhibition. In addition, parts of the exhibition were later incorporated into Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s £8 million development of its History Galleries. The final section of the exhibition on childhood in the 21st century was curated by young people from two local schools. This part of the project aimed to work directly with young people to enable them to record, research, document, and communicate the histories and experiences of children and young people by: providing access to archive collections; providing training to record oral histories; providing support/training to develop and establish a Children’s Lives archive at Birmingham Libraries Archives providing support and training to enable them to research, interpret and curate their own exhibition as part of the Children’s Lives exhibition at Birmingham Museum Art Gallery supporting young people to deliver a young people’s exhibition launch event; establishing an online presence by creating a contemporary digital archive and blog (which also charts their engagement and is a measure of the success of this area of the project). For the researchers, the experiences of the project and the exhibition provided them with the skills and connections to build further, more ambitious projects using their relationships with partners.
- The exhibition
- Co-created by Dr Sian Roberts from the City Archives and Professor Ian Grosvenor, the BMAG exhibition featured works by nationally and internationally celebrated artists: Reynolds, Gainsborough, Rossetti, Millais, Watts, Munch, Picasso and Rego, Bill Brandt’s documentary photography of the 1930s and 40s commissioned by the Cadbury family, and Nick Hedges’ powerful photographs for SHELTER in the late 70s, all sourced by or from the archives of the partner organisations. It was therefore necessarily informed by participant understanding and by the organisations’ wealth of experience in this area. By working closely with the partner schools, the organisations were able to pass on relevant skills and so ensure that pupils’ archival materials and their section of the exhibition were of the highest quality, but without compromising their independence (or the authenticity of their views). The project blogs acted as effective mechanisms for keeping all partners updated on the progress of the project and the exhibition throughout, and were frequently updated and visited.
- As a result of the project, new resources on experiences of childhood have been produced and shared. Records produced by local school pupils included reflections on 21st Century childhood, while video testimonials recorded memories of childhood lived earlier. With the support of researchers and archivists these now exist in formats and locations that are accessible for the public and researchers in the future. A legacy of the project is the Children's Lives website which brings together a large volume of material from the exhibition for further public engagement. Partnerships with the heritage organisations were sustained and strengthened following the project through involvement with Professor Grosvenor’s AHRC-funded WWI Community Heritage Centre.