Considering the role of childhood as a site of cultural fantasy invested with idealised notions of innocence and imaginative creativity, my thesis seeks to examine the ways in which representations of “childhood” are largely determined by the material objects associated with the child at play. Working at the Museum of Childhood, then, informed my thinking around my thesis in a number of ways. It was one of the first museums to consider the child audience in its curation and is now revisiting this in order to both develop more immersive displays and to foster a mode of design that responds to the innovations which emerge during child’s play. This focus on childhood as at once an audience and a site of inspiration, forced me to consider in more detail the ways in which childhood is culturally defined by the sorts of spaces children are given access to, the culture they are allowed or expected to consume, and the ways in which cultural sites define or delimit childhood in attempting to both appeal to the child and market or conserve a particular history of childhood.
On a more practical level, working in the museum library assisted me in identifying gaps in my research. In addition, working in close proximity with the archive was a fantastic opportunity to consider the socioeconomic histories behind the material culture of childhood separately from the representations of such objects in literature. A central location which brings together a wide range of the scholarship around childhood, situating it alongside archival material, is an invaluable resource for researchers of childhood. Although most of the material held in the library is of course available elsewhere, having it all in the same location presents an incredible opportunity for more rigorous and interdisciplinary approaches to research on childhood.
Working closely with the archivist, Gary Haines, as part of the collections team, my project was to relaunch the museum library. The primary objective of my project was to create a relatively self-sustaining, volunteer run library for staff, while also widening access to the library and increasing its use by researchers.
Working closely with the archivist afforded me the chance to learn how a museum archive is organised and maintained as well as to gain experience of how a museum collections team operates. Following training at the V&A’s National Art Library, I formulated a set of short and long-term goals for the library. These included putting in place a digital registration system which helped with ensuring more joined up working with other V&A libraries; training and managing a volunteer; increasing the library’s online presence; and identifying gaps in holdings, writing a list of acquisitions and designing a sustainable acquisitions policy. As well as these objectives I also had day-to-day responsibilities which included invigilating the reading room, managing library enquiries and bookings.
I have learnt that before starting any major project such as this in the future, I must make my expectations and objectives clear at the start. My advice to those starting a placement would be that, whilst responding to the needs of your placement host, ensure that you make the placement your own.
The museum as a whole was an intellectually stimulating yet relaxed and friendly environment to work in and I received excellent training, support and guidance from the archivist. The archivist is now looking for another PhD student placement to work in the archive and assist with a project on the history of the museum; I would certainly encourage students with research interests in childhood or the heritage sector to apply.