Toy memories

I very much enjoyed a study day at the Brighton Toy & Model Museum showcasing the work of their Heritage Lottery Funded project Toys in the Community which has lots in common with our approach to using ‘favourite things’ as a way of finding out about children’s lives. The overall aim of this project was to encourage community engagement in the toy museum, using a methodology of inviting adults to talk about the toys that they cherished as children – with a focus on teddy bears, dolls and construction toys. These testimonies were filmed and edited and a wonderful website has been developed to showcase the material: http://toysinthecommunity.org/about/

At the study day I met Annebella Pollen who lectures in History of Art and Design at Brighton and was one of the interviewees for the project, where she reflects on her childhood collection of ‘gollys’, black-faced dolls and other memorabilia. Her interview is fascinating, and her presentation pulled out key themes including how ‘unstable’ her memories are of her collection (she can’t actually remember playing with them, just having them). What ‘difficult objects’ they are and were, and how as a child she came to piece together an understanding of the racist discourses that shaped the figure of the golly that she was so attached to. And then the ‘complicated feelings’ that this produced along the way and continues to produce for her today as she reflect on her toys.

A customised Barbie on display at the Brighton Toy Museum

Although this project works with adults, inviting them to reminisce about their childhood through toys, it nevertheless echoes some of the insights that we gained from exploring how children and young people connect with material objects but also how they start feeling nostalgic about them almost from the word ‘go’. For example 7 year old Lucien showed me old toys that captured the kind of boy he used to be (toy cars and a Lego camper van), and teenage Aliyah shared a memory box of memorabilia that she is curating to remember her childhood.

We also saw some of the ways in which toys can be a serious business for children, a way of working out their relationship to a broader culture or simply their place within a household – as wonderfully illustrated by Tempest’s wild doll play.

The study day also confirmed our finding that working with objects can raise powerful emotions and meaning – that we talk about things we have not put into words before as well as recounting well-worn stories. This demands the highest ethical standards for the oral history work, giving people a chance to see their transcripts, to edit material before it goes public and to decide what kinds of formats they want it to be published in. The Toys in the Community project also demonstrated what a popular and participatory methodology this could be, working with a diverse range of groups and ages and involving and training volunteers as interviewers, filmmakers and editors. I especially love the interview between two friends where the creation of an audience allows the couple to find out things about each other that they did not know before.

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