Finally, the rest of the world gets to see what we’ve been up to. The Modern British Childhood Exhibition opened its doors last night; our writing is on display. While we mop up the tears of joy and relief, 26 stalwart John Simmons, one of the brains behind this project, reflects on the road we have travelled…
That was a first. A communal singalong in the Museum of Childhood led by Esther Rantzen. Our song was “Muffin the Mule” – “Here comes Muffin, Muffin the Mule…everybody sing Good Old Muffin the Mule.”
Not everyone joined in but that was probably explained by the fact that you needed to be in your 60s to have watched the original Muffin the MuleTV programme. Still, I thought it was a game effort by Esther who was the special guest to open the Modern British Childhood exhibition. And a couple of hundred guests, including writers who’d taken part by writing a sestude about a childhood object, were only too delighted to be there as the first people to see the exhibition.
What a long road we’ve travelled. At times a magical yellow brick road taking us all back through our childhoods, but the real starting point for this project goes back two and a half years to the original 26 Treasures at the V&A in 2010. For that project 26 writers had been paired with objects from way before any of our childhoods, various antique treasures from the 15th to 18th centuries: a bust of Henry VII, Elizabethan miniature, the Great Bed of Ware, a king’s wedding suit. The sestudes (my coined word came soon after) were 62 words displayed in the V&A alongside the objects. It had all gone so well that the V&A extended the exhibition for a month beyond its original slot as part of the London Design Festival.
In fact it went so well that it proved relatively easy to persuade the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Scotland to let 26 writers loose on objects from their collections too. By this point (autumn 2011) we had four collections of sestudes and we were able to convince new publisher Unbound to take 26 Treasures on as a book.
Using crowd-funding (thanks all who subscribed) we were able to launch the book in September at the 2012 London Design Festival. The yellow brick road had led us back to where we started at the V&A. Now the book, beautifully designed by Sam Gray, is available in bookshops and online.
Along the way, we’d had the thought that we are all stocked in our memories with books, objects, toys that are precious to us from our childhoods. How about writing another batch of sestudes about childhood objects? So we approached the Museum of Childhood in London and struck very lucky because Rhian Harris, the director, agreed to see us and explained that she was curating an exhibition to be called Modern British Childhood 1948-2012. It was almost too perfect to be true.
So began the particular part of the journey that took us to the private view at the Museum of Childhood on 10th October. Our writers, marshalled by Fiona Thompson, all produced 62 words exactly about Muffin the Mule (Michael Rosen), Chopper bikes (Neil Baker), Sylvanian Families (Lorelei Mathias) and twenty-five more besides. But for me the special addition was the fourteen schoolchildren from Rushmore Primary School who wrote their sestudes about objects from this century, from trainers to hijab scarves to Tellytubbies. This was all arranged with the Ministry of Stories.
Now the exhibition was in hand, all that remained was to produce the booklet of the work. We got the very talented designer David Carroll on board with his colleague Natalie Bullard from David Carroll & Co. With Park Communications agreeing to print the booklet at low rates, and the V&A shop agreeing to take and sell copies we were ready to welcome the public.
It was a wonderful experience – sorry if that doesn’t sound cool enough. But the whole theme of the exhibition was one that provoked thoughts, stimulated memories, put us touch with our emotions. I’m sure there were tears involved in the writing of the pieces but, as my colleague Jamie Jauncey is fond of quoting from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
What changed, if anything? That’s up to each of you to decide as you visit the museum and exhibition. Do go along and see. The exhibition will make you think about childhood – the one you had, perhaps the one your parents had or the one your children will have. It will make you realise how precious the time is and the objects associated in your minds with that time.
For me, it made me rethink history a little, in a very positive way. We are too used to thinking of history as kings and queens, wars and treaties, ancient documents and symbols of power. But actually we are living and creating history every day and, as I spoke when Esther Rantzen stopped singing: “We share experiences. Of course we share our history, and history can be represented by a child’s toy, a milk bottle and a television programme. That’s the real history of ordinary lives and objects and people that are made extraordinary by the shared emotions they evoke.”
Thank you to all the writers who shared their experiences, words and histories.