Seen But Not Heard? The Spatial, Emotional and Material Sites of Childhood and Youth from Antiquity to Modernity.
Blog by Owen Emmerson
The Seen But Not Heard conference was held at the University of Sussex on 18-20th January 2017. Its aim was to bring together scholars with interest in childhood and youth from across disciplines, from the early modern period up to the present, and from a range of geographical locations. We encouraged applicants to flexibly interoperate the boundaries of childhood and youth, and encouraged applications from postgraduate and early career researchers. We were fortunate to receive CHASE funding which relieved the burden of conference fees for all forty-five speakers, over half of which were postgraduates. Our aim was to showcase new research from across disciplines, time and space, and to facilitate a discussion of both the challenges and possibilities of research on childhood and youth today. We were also more than fortunate to be able to celebrate the launch of Hester Barron and Claudia Siebrecht’s new edited collection (which by all accounts has become the essential post-conference reading) Parenting and the State in Britain and Europe, c 1870-1950: Raising the Nation (Palgrave MacMillan). We would like to very much thank CIRCY for their generous contribution which enabled us to give this important collection the introduction it deserves.
On a personal level, I wanted to create a space to explore how far the histories of childhood had moved on from being seen chiefly as ‘a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken’. The recent Horrible Histories conference challenged the boundaries of the ‘nightmare thesis’ and bought together ‘nightmarish’ subjects to do so. My research, which is deeply embedded in the emotive (and at times nightmarish) subject of childhood corporal punishment, also explores how resistance greatly enhanced children’s spatial, emotional, and material understandings of the world around them. There is a great sense of pleasure, enrichment and happiness embedded within the exchange between social movements, who offered solidarity to the children whose lives I chart across post-war Britain. By asking how broadly we can access children’s voices across history, and in seeking to understand how all emotions can be mapped, including those typically associated with a ‘nightmare thesis’, our contention was that we could better measure exactly how nightmarish childhood can be categorised at any given time in history. The breadth of experience, emotion and diverging and intersecting sites of agency that were presented at the conference provided an almost overwhelming sense of the complexity, or messiness of the history of childhood. Perhaps our current, collective determination to wake up to this messiness has itself created a methodological sense of nightmare. Yet the conference helped to solidify and strengthen many of my more anxious approaches to hearing historical children’s voice and provided new methods that will fortify how I address and echo the complex intersections of feeling across time and place.
Our keynote speakers all engagingly married so many of the complex threads that emerged across the wonderfully diverse conference papers. Professor Pamela Cox’s keynote mapped the life courses and life chances of youths who had lived through England’s criminal system from the 1850s and suggested new methodologies for influencing social policy and their limitations. Professor Colin Heywood asked ‘where were the children’, exploring the historiographical approaches to the history of childhood in relation to adult histories, while arguing the need to capture the lives, voices and histories of children in different ways. Dr Laura King’s keynote brought an important focus on temporality and death in childhood and youth transitions and charted the rise and consequences of the selective investment in children as agents of the future in early post-war Britain.
Our final keynotes came from Dr Hester Barron, Professor Claire Langhamer and Dr Lucy Robinson. Drawing on materials and conclusions from Hester & Caire’s latest article on Mass-Observation’s children’s essays, and Lucy’s forthcoming book on the relationship between popular culture and politics in the 1980s, the final panel perfectly emphasised the need to address to the complex intersection of feeling and experience. It also strongly accentuated the need to work with children of the past, not simply work on childhood. At what has been an emotional conference in many senses, for me the last panel exemplified how to do the history of emotions and how to approach and present emotional history. The conference brought together new methodologies, new approaches and new perspectives on childhood that transcended the emotional, the material and the spatial and beyond. We would very much like to thank all of those involved.