‘Collecting childhood’ – in two ways

01 October 2015
A Ghagra Choli, an amber bead necklace and a repaired light saber were among the items donated to the collection by the seven Growing Up in New Zealand families. Each object has a unique story to tell. Photos: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

One thing we have in common is that we’ve all been kids. Some of us still are. But have you ever wondered how childhood experiences might provide insights into wider society?

Research into childhood tells us about changing ideologies around parenting, social welfare, education, health and wellbeing, and provides information about more general trends such as changing cultural practices, increasing ethnic diversity, and levels of wealth or poverty. This is certainly true of the University’s Growing Up in New Zealand study, directed by Associate Professor Susan Morton from the School of Population Health.

One 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. However, childhood objects serve as a physical representation of these trends, and also reflect changing technologies and the availability of new materials.

With this in mind, Lynette Townsend, curator from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, started thinking of ways in which the experiences of kids today could be preserved within the context of the museum.. That was in 2011.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study, which had been launched two years earlier, seemed to be the perfect fit for a co-operation. Based at the Centre for Longitudinal Research – He Ara ki Mua at the University of Auckland, the study is following the lives of almost 7000 children from before birth into adulthood. It provides an up-to-date picture of what it is like to be a child in New Zealand in the 21st century, and has strong links with 16 government agencies which use the research to develop policy to better meet the needs of New Zealand children.

A few months after her first meeting with Susan Morton, Lynette began work with seven Growing Up in New Zealand children and their families to build a collection of objects that might represent the lives and experiences of children growing up in our country today.

Now the first stage of “Collecting childhood” is available to the public for the very first time through Te Papa’s “Collections Online”.

The seven Growing Up in New Zealand families who were selected by Te Papa to take part in the long-term project were visited at home by Lynette when the children were three years old. In discussion with their parents, each child chose special items that reflected them and their lives at the time of collection. The result is a wide variety of objects including toys, photos, clothing, jewellery, homemade crafts and even a digital recording that together provide a unique glimpse into the everyday lives of kiwi kids.

“The two projects complement each other perfectly,” says Susan Morton. “Growing Up in New Zealand tells the story of a whole generation of New Zealand children and ‘Collecting childhood’ exemplifies it in the personal stories and items that the seven families have donated.”

Many of the topics the longitudinal study covers 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. One of the children portrayed in the collection, Austin Wang - with his family - is representative of the increasing ethnic diversity in New Zealand. Along with baby clothing, Austin generously donated a set of Mandarin language flash cards which were used by his parents to teach him to read and write Mandarin while growing up in New Zealand.

The collection will grow with the children it portrays, and new stories and items will be collected every few years by the museum. To put those stories into a wider context, the Growing Up research team contributes infographics with information from all Growing Up in New Zealand families. Ethnicity, languages, and early childhood activities have been chosen as the first topics to be added to the collection.

This year Aariel and the other children in the “Collecting childhood” project will be six, and Lynette looks forward to meeting them again. “Most will have started school, some will have joined cultural groups, started learning new sports and maybe music”, she says. ”It is a dynamic time and I wonder what they will choose to reflect their lives now.”

Find the collection online