The Kiddy Pool: MoMA’s “Century of the Child” Exhibit

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

In their book of literary criticism Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry describe Romantic perceptions of childhood in which childhood is viewed as “utopian, a space and time apart from the corruption of everyday adult life” (5). The editors further state, “To the Romantics and their heirs, children were innocent and pure, close to nature and God, possessing greater imaginative powers than adults. They were emblems of hope and the future, capable of converting adults to a better way of life” (6). Though Christian doctrine incorporates the idea of “fallenness” for all humanity, there are threads that connect Christ’s attitudes toward children with the Romantics who came long after Him. Christ encourages His followers to “Let the little children come” and to cultivate a child-like faith, which I have always interpreted as a mix of trust and wonder.

These tensions between the utopian ideal of childhood and the more dystopian reality that so many of the world’s children actually face on a daily basis seem to echo throughout history. I thought of that tension as I viewed the online collection for MoMA’s “Century of the Child” exhibit. The interactive display takes visitors through the twentieth century on an eclectic tour of design for children ranging from high chairs and toys to schoolbooks and advertisements. As the MoMA website for the exhibit explains, “In 1900, Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key’s book Century of the Child presaged the 20th century as a period of intensified focus and progressive thinking regarding the rights, development, and well-being of children as interests of utmost importance to all society.” The exhibit quite self-consciously portrays the utopian/dystopian pull of childhood, an element that particularly came through for me in the advertisements.

One example shows child laborers in a campaign for United Colors of Benetton; another promotes cat food by placing an image of a smiling, healthy girl and her kitty next to images of starving children. While many of the collection’s items illustrate a sincere desire to improve the lives of children and to integrate them into society in ways that acknowledge their full humanity, these ads demonstrate the disturbing reality of child exploitation. Children are used to sell products, and the same century that acknowledges children as integral to society simultaneously sees children as a lucrative market. Engaging with children as full participants in culture too often means that children — like so many of us grownups — are seen as potential consumers rather than citizens.

While the hope of childhood-as-utopia may be too unrealistic, even impossible, surely the childhood-as-dystopia ought to at least be actively avoided. That requires thinking of children as agents and not merely as instruments or an untapped market. It requires recognizing children’s right to play, to imagination, to meaningful roles in their families and communities (as so many of the designs in the MoMA exhibit strive for). It requires, as this UNICEF ad makes painfully clear, universal access to clean water.

I am often irked when I observe grownups telling children how toys are “supposed” to work and instructing them how to play when the lesson is unwanted, unwarranted, and often less imaginative than the children’s original endeavor. That minor irritation gains its appropriate perspective in light of this exhibit that shows children’s play in an historical, social, cultural, and global picture. It highlights aesthetic beauty designed within a framework of utopian idealism and creative new ways to exploit the youngest — and often the most vulnerable — members of society. It calls for a rethinking of childhood itself: utopian, dystopian, fraught with contradictions and discrepancies. It’s worthwhile for grownups to consider our own understandings and ideals of childhood, because, after all, when it comes to the kingdom of God, aren’t we called to come as little children?

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.


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