Friday, July 27, 2012

The Empire in the Toy Cupboard: The V & A Museum of Childhood

'Excursions on Land & Sea', panorama, c. 1880
People sometimes comment on the academic study of children's literature and childhood as if it is a frivolous pursuit with no potential to tell us anything about history or culture. It would no doubt make some people gasp to know that some scholars even study children's toys. The toys in this post are part of the current V & A Museum of Childhood's exhibitions, and I've chosen them because of what they might reveal to us about the British Empire.

People don't tend to think of toys as carrying any particular meaning, perhaps apart from gendered ones, but the toys of the past record many complicated ideas, even if unintentionally.

L'Orient or the Indian Travellers; A Geographical and
 Historical Game, c. 1847
The panorama pictured above is designed to look like a toy theatre. The child would roll a long piece of paper along so that its movement gradually reveals a story (a candle could be placed behind the paper to add extra drama to the scene). This panorama bears a crest with the words "The World's Wonders", encouraging the toy owner to see English shipping--in this frame the ship is "full steam" across the English channel-- as a modern marvel. Without being able to see the full roll and with little knowledge of Europe in this period, I am still a little mystified as to why the Pan-Slavic flag sits alongside the Union Jack.

It was seagoing ability that made global exploration and colonisation possible. The L'Orient board game shows three different sailing routes to India, with the watchful eyes of British monarchs from George I to Queen Victoria running across the top. While the rule booklet for this game has been lost, the V & A speculates that players would use a form of spinning top (teetotum) to advance around the squares, with a requirement for the player to match the situation illustrated in each square with the ruling monarch of the period.
Telescopic panorama of the
Great Exhibition, 1851
'All the World at the Great Exhibition' , c. 1860

TheAGreat Exhibition of 1851 was the first World's Fair (today known as world expositions)  intended to exhibit milestones in culture and industry. The 'Crystal Palace' exhibition, as it is also known, primarily sought to show British achievements and those of its colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and India, though there were exhibits from European nations.The telescopic panorama of the Great Exhibition allows a child to peer through nine layers of card to take in a somewhat three-dimensional view of the Exhibition. The ongoing significance of the Great Exhibition in Victorian Britain is evident in the continuing production of products celebrating and recalling the event, such as this puzzle from around the 1860s. 
The guide picture that shows the child how the puzzle ought to look and the puzzle itself include the caption "All the World and His Wife at the Great Exhibition." The caption is a little unclear to me. Does it mean that the male figure, presumably English, represents "all the world", and his wife has no connection with the imperial realm of trade and industry? Or are the other figures represented, including those in Asian dress, being acknowledged as part of the fabric of that world?                          

Junior Lecturer Series, 1900-1910
The importance of the colonies is evident in a set of 'Junior Lecturer' slides that were produced from 1900-1910 in order for British children to become acquainted with the geography and peoples of places such as Canada and South Africa. The possessive title encourages children to see that these countries belong to them as British people. As good citizens of Empire, children ought to acquire knowledge about common practices in the colonies, just as the first explorers and settlers observed, categorised and documented these "new" lands.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The History of Dolls: V & A Museum of Childhood

Jem and Stormer of Jem and the Holograms c.1986
During the past week in London, I've managed to fit in some unofficial research about childhood around my real work at the Bodleian Library and the British Library, where I have been reading girls' school stories. One thing I won't be listing on my university travel diary is a visit to Hamley's, an amazing toy store on Regent St. I braved four floors of frazzled parents, hyperactive kids, and enthusiastic staff demonstrating products in a zany fashion. Though the "zaniness" of the staff interacting with toys seemed confined to the boys' floor, with more sedate happenings on the girls' floor. Although technically they're not "boys'" and "girls'" floors since the "gender apartheid" of such labelling at this iconic store was pointed out last year. 

Nevertheless, the "not-just-for-girls" floor was a pink wonderland of Barbie, fairies and Hello Kitty. Astonishingly, there is even a beauty salon, at which girls can nag their parents into paying for them to have their nails, make-up or hair done, with glitter an optional extra. The salon is called Tantrum, and the website of the concept store doesn't give any sense that a boy would want to tangle with glitter tattoos or nail polish (after all, it's "the ultimate girls' experience): 

Shirley Temple cut-out doll, 1935
The current trends in toys make an ideal contrast to the history of toys and children's play that is recorded in the exhibits at the V & A Museum of Childhood. The Bethnal Green building once housed an odd mixture of items including collections from the Food and Animal Products displays at the Great Exhibition, as well as art works intended to bring culture to London's East End. Since 1973, however, all of the V & A's objects relating to childhood have been held here. With thousands of items dating from the seventeenth century onwards in the collection, only a fraction is able to be displayed. I gravitated toward toys from the nineteenth century and to those of my own childhood in the 1980s, hence the Jem photograph above (though I was more of a Barbie & the Rockers girl, despite it being a blatant copy). All of the periods represented have much to tell us about how childhood, manufacturing and branding have changed, and to reveal the fine strands that connect the toys of the past with those of the present.

Lillie Langtry soap ad
The Shirley Temple cut-out doll from 1935 is a good example of how celebrity crossed over media platforms long before the Olsen twins. Of course, celebrity association with brands began decades before Temple's dimples charmed the world, with the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising showing some of the products endorsed by music hall performer Lillie Langtry from the 1880s. While images of children, such as Millais' Bubbles, were used to sell products such as soap in the Victorian period, Temple is perhaps the first actual child to spawn her own merchandise.

Walking doll c. 1885
It is miraculous that many of the early toys survive at all, let alone with their accompanying packaging and tiny accessories in some instances. The care taken with them indicates the precious nature of children's toys in the 18th and 19th centuries, and differing ideas about their disposable nature today. The skill and patient labour required in the manufacture of many early toys is evident in the walking doll picture here: a mechanical device that made the doll perambulate was concealed beneath her large skirts. The Museum's amazing display of dolls' houses (which were originally the preserve of adults) shows the extent of the painstaking labour devoted to crafting these miniature replicas. 

Amy Miles dolls' house 1890
Though the V & A collection includes a royal dolls' house, the one pictured here from 1890 belonged to a girl named Amy Miles, who is believed to have helped in its construction. There are other objects on display that show how children and parents created or crafted their own amusements. I'm surprised my father didn't design his own board game like the very elaborate home-made game created by one family. A faultless girls' embroidery sampler from the nineteenth century shows the crossover of leisure time with the acquisition of practical skills for homemaking.

There were also amazing displays of optical toys, such as panoramas, shadow theatres and lantern slides, many of which promoted Britain's achievements or explained the customs of its colonies. In my next post, I'll show some of these toys that introduced ideas about the British Empire to children in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Monday, July 9, 2012

So Long God and Liz: The New Australian Girl Guides Promise

Girl Guide salute, as used when making the promise,
demonstrated by a Canadian Guide and Brownie (1985)
For an organisation with a small membership, Girl Guides Australia has attracted local and international media attention in the past week. Though there are fewer than 30,000 girls and women involved in Guiding in Australia today, down substantially from a peak of 80,000 and despite a century-long legacy in which one million Australian women are former Guides, the very idea of changing a traditional organisation still excites public opinion. This week the more than century-old Guide promise was revised to remove reference to a “duty to God” and service to the Queen. The change is clearly intended to stem the decline in Guiding in Australia. This downward trend is not reflected in the United Kingdom where there are more than half a million Guides and one in every three girls of the appropriate age is enrolled in Brownies. For an organisation teetering on the edge of becoming unviable in its current form, the change in the Australian Guide promise is a major, and controversial, step in demonstrating that an organisation built out of British imperialism is still relevant to 21st century girls in a postcolonial nation.
Across the past decade or more, Guiding in Australia had already begun moving away from many of the traditions that defined it during the mid-20th century. Uniforms became more casual, with mix-and-match polo shirts and other casual wear. Overall the new look is less reminiscent of a 1970s QANTAS flight attendent crossed with a sailor in full regalia in an attempt to lose some of the daggy connotations associated with being a Guide. In what I thought was a sad moment, the Brownie section of the movement was merged with Guiding such that there is no separate uniform for Australian girls in the younger age group (and no toadstool, Brown Owl, skipping around mirrors, or Woorails, Tintookies or Lullagullis).  

Australian Guiding has been eager to show that it is modern and progressive and a cool place to be. Witness this television advertisement from three years ago that was clearly not impressive to the one Guide who chose to comment on it. The logic of tween and teen years means that anything that girls need be told by adults is "cool" is, in fact, the farthest thing from being so. Even I knew that I was flirting with danger as a Brownie in 1988 and did not make the transition to Guiding when I became too old for my brown dress and yellow skivvy.

Changes in uniform and name, coupled with attempts to promote Guiding on television, seemingly did little to attract more girls to an organisation that was nevertheless making great efforts to provide a relevant and challenging program for today's girls. Guiding in Australia has an image problem. As in the UK, the shifting cultural make-up of Australia's population has prompted some of the changes to Guiding. In 2007, Girl Guides UK introduced a headscarf to the official uniform to encourage Muslim girls to feel welcome in Guiding. Last year a Muslim Guide unit was established in New South Wales in an attempt to draw in girls from communities who have not traditionally been part of Guiding in Australia.

Ismaili (a sect of Shia Islam) Girl Guides circa 1920s holding a portrait
of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan

Nevertheless, any idea that Guiding was or is a solely Christian organisation is untrue. A substantial number of units, especially in the United Kingdom, had associations with church groups, but an equally substantial number were run from neutral community halls or purpose-built huts. From the beginning, Scout and Guide founder Robert Baden-Powell made it clear that girls must believe in a higher being in order to join, but the notion of God did not preclude girls of faiths other than Christianity from becoming Guides. Indeed, it was the imagined relevance of Guiding and Girl Scouting to girls from every kind of background that meant that it was adopted in one-hundred-and-forty-five countries, with Hindu and Muslim nations among those that formed affiliations with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts not long after its formation. Guiding began in India in 1911, Turkey in 1923, Lybia in 1958 and the United Arab Emirates in 1973, to give just a small number of examples.

Without denying some of the missionary efforts underlying the establishment of Guiding in some of these countries, or the historical separation of Indigenous girls from white girls in some places, Guiding did set out with goals of being relevant to, and inclusive of, girls of all faiths and races. Olave Baden-Powell, the World Chief Guide from 1930 until her death in 1977 (and Baden-Powell’s wife), visited over one hundred countries to meet with Guides, and spent a substantial amount of time in places such as Kenya.

How curious, then, that it is imagined in 2012 that steps need to be taken to ensure that girls of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome in Guiding: this idea has been at its core for more than a century. The recent change is oriented around the “promise”, a brief paragraph that is generally only spoken once in a Guide’s time in the organisation, unless there is an extraordinary situation in which the promise is renewed (as at the Guiding centenary celebrations recently). In this way, it’s reminiscent of a marriage vow—symbolic, but of little ongoing importance in day-to-day living.

The original British Guide promise read:
“On my honour, I promise that I will do my best-,
To do my duty to God and the King,
To help other people at all times,
To obey the Guide law.”

The promise that I made in Brownies in Australia in the 1980s was very similar:
“I promise that I will do my best,
To do my duty to God,
To serve the Queen and my country,
To help other people,
and to keep the Brownie Guide law.”

It is also how the Australian Guide promise read (minus the word “Brownie”) until the following  promise was adopted:
“I promise that I will do my best:
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs
To serve my community and Australia
And live by the Guide Law.”
Queen Elizabeth II inspects a Girl Guide
Much of the media response has focused on the removal of God and the Queen from the promise. Australian Scouts have the option of mentioning the Queen or leaving her out, but God remains. In the UK, the Guide promise wording is still in the vein of the original promise, but “to love my God” replaces “do my duty to God”. This retains the spirit of Baden-Powell’s intent that Guides should believe in a higher being (though some countries were originally permitted to replace the term God with an alternative), but that this could accommodate girls of any religious faith. While Australian Guiding could have similarly changed “duty to God” to “love my God” to more clearly show the inclusion all kinds of religious belief, they have instead opted for the vague “develop my beliefs”.

I think this wording indicates that there is no longer a requirement to have any kind of faith in a god, rather than being an attempt to accommodate girls of all religious faiths, who have been welcome from the outset. As an atheist, the removal of reference to God does not bother me, but it is intriguing that this change has been presented as a way of accommodating different religious backgrounds rather than acknowledgement of Australia’s increasing secularisation, or at least of declining participation in formal religious attendance. There has been critique of UK and US Guide and Scout organisations for discriminating against atheists in their membership terms, and this change in Australia has successfully removed reference to God in a way that seems more accommodating of religious diversity rather than being irreligious.

Though the removal of reference to the Queen has been of most interest to monarchist and republicans, the changes to the accompanying Guide Law are striking for the way they mark of changes in how we perceive childhood. The original Guide Law was composed in 1910:
"A Guide is loyal and can be trusted.
A Guide is helpful.
A Guide is polite and considerate.
A Guide is friendly and a sister to all Guides.
A Guide is kind to animals and respects all living things.
A Guide is obedient.
A Guide has courage and is cheerful in all difficulties.
A Guide makes good use of her time.
A Guide takes care of her own possessions and those of other people.
A Guide is self-controlled in all she thinks, says and does."

The new Law bears little relationship to the original:
"As a Guide I will strive to:
Respect myself and others
Be considerate, honest and trustworthy
Be friendly to others
Make choices for a better world
Use my time and abilities wisely
Be thoughtful and optimistic
Live with courage and strength."
While it is admirable that girls are encouraged to think about their potential to change the world, some of the deletions are revealing. To be “cheerful in all difficulties” does suggest a kind of outdated model of the uncomplaining housewife, yet the notion of staying positive despite adversity still seems relevant, especially in a world in which children are increasingly shielded from disappointment and its by-product, resilience. In the brief discussion of the changes in the Law in the media, the use of the words “loyal” and “obedient” were seen as especially inappropriate for girls and women. Loyalty is a valuable quality in all humans, and for girls who develop through contemporary hurdles to coming-of-age, such as cyberbullying, being a trustworthy friend is surely still important. “Obedience” is much more fraught in that the notion of women “obeying” their husbands that was embedded in the marriage oath suggested a gendered obligation to subservience. Nevertheless, it is telling that we no longer expect children to “obey” or do as they are instructed by parents, teachers, or community leaders, as in Guiding.  We also lose specific reference to being kind to animals, which is disappointing in an age of factory farming, animal testing, and wholesale destruction of habitat that is entwined with environmental degradation. What better way to "make choices for a better world" than by "respect[ing] all living things"?

I understand that the girls and leaders involved in Guiding all feel some kind of ownership over the organisation and that agreeing on a new promise and Law must have involved inevitable compromise and concession. The intent of the changes are no doubt worthy, in that they aim to make Australian parents and girls see Guiding as a worthwhile place to socialise with other girls and to develop leadership and practical skills that they might not undertake in school. The removal of God and the Queen from the promise removes much that was symbolic of Guiding throughout its first century. The test will be whether a new model of Guiding, without these traditions, retains sufficient meaning and identity, or whether holding on to these traditional signs, in modified form, and with attempts to modernise, as in the United Kingdom, is a better strategy for the survival of Guiding.