One thing we all have in common is we’ve all been kids. Some of us still are. But have you ever wondered how your childhood experiences might provide insights into wider society? Studies into childhood provide information about changing ideologies around parenting, social welfare, education, health and wellbeing, as well as more general trends such as changing cultural practices, increasing ethnic diversity, and the level of wealth or poverty. Childhood objects also reflect changing technologies and the availability of new materials.
An issue for those interested in exploring the history of childhood is that most children record little of their thoughts, feelings or experiences, especially when they are very young, and only remember a fraction of their childhood as adults. When something is written, it is most commonly from an adult perspective.
The Collecting childhood project begins
With this in mind, I started to think of ways in which the experiences of kids today could be preserved within the context of the national museum. In 2012, I started working with seven New Zealand children and their families to build a collection of objects that might represent the lives and experiences of children growing up in New Zealand today. In discussion with their parents, each child selected special items that reflected them and their life at that point. The result was a rich and varied range of items that together provide a unique glimpse into the everyday lives of kiwi kids.
An ornate choli (pictured below) donated by Aariel Naidu, was part of the first Indian outfit worn when she was a baby. She wore it to a wedding in 2009. Aariel was born in New Zealand to Fijian Indian parents, so the outfit is an important expression of her cultural heritage.
Growing Up in New Zealand
The children and their families portrayed in Collecting childhood are part of the University of Auckland’s Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study. This research project follows the lives of almost 7,000 children from before birth into adulthood and provides an up-to-date picture of what’s like to be a child in New Zealand in the 21st century.
The two projects complement each other well. While Te Papa’s Collecting childhood project showcases the unique experiences of a few children and their families, the Growing Up in New Zealand research provides in-depth information across a range of topics from an ethnically and socio-economically diverse group of New Zealand children. Many of these topics relate directly to the children in the Te Papa project. For example, the Growing Up in New Zealand research found that 16 percent of their cohort identified as Asian, and that 42 percent identified with multiple ethnicities. Aariel Naidu and her family are representative of the increasing ethnic diversity in New Zealand. Along with a ghagra choli, Aariel generously donated a Hindu scroll and a digital recording of her bedtime songs – which are in a combination of English and Hindi.
This year Aariel and the other children in the Collecting childhood project will be 6. Most will have started school, some will have joined cultural groups, started learning new sports and maybe music. It is a dynamic time – I wonder what they will choose to reflect their lives now?