It’s not far from where I live, but I had never been to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood before now. Crazy, huh.
If I’m honest, the building itself shocked me a bit, reminding me of a starker version of the Pitt Rivers Museum (which is a weird museum – another story). It was all open and noisy. I don’t know why, but I was expecting more of a library, journey-type museum, rather than an (admittedly, gorgeous) open hall and with massive ceilings and balconies around the outside.
I was also hungry at the time, so some of these opinions may be slightly skewed.
Afro Supa Hero – Jon Daniels
I loved the underlying idea behind Afro Supa Hero. I loved seeing the comics from the 1960s onwards – I wished I could have read some of them there. I’m not even into comics that much, but there were some seemingly great action stories and ace history-based ones I wanted to peer into (especially the one about Harriet Tubman).
But the historical journey of Afro action figures and heroes was the really interesting bit. It was a relief to see a shift from their names being ‘Black XYZ’ to just XYZ. That’s polite of everyone.
Some renditions of famous black characters into toys was embarrassing – you could compare the printed image on the box to the way they’d been rendered in 3D and you could tell sometimes it was just like – “eh, we’ll just make White Lady Action Figure into darker skin and it’ll be fine!” Cringe.
I learned that Jean-Michel Basqiat and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry have action figures (!!). Which is pretty rad, although i never really played with dolls (cough). And, on a selfish level, I was a bit bummed that Frozone from the Incredibles wasn’t in there. Maybe he’s missing for a reason. Like licensing blah blah.
(Or maybe Jon Daniels doesn’t like Frozone?)
At the end of the historical/collectible action figures was Jon Daniels’ own super hero design.
And it was fly – matching mega afros, the earrings matching the goatie? red, yellow, green and black colours of Africa? Loved it.
There were mock-ups and lego versions, although I really want to see them in production. Surely Momiji dolls need a new range – I would have bought some Afro Super Hero dolls, for sure.
Well, I say that, but I couldn’t afford to buy one of the cute mugs on sale, so who am I kidding ( I would like to think that the money went to Daniels himself and not back into the V&A merch pot)
But what Daniels’ show highlighted, of course, was the limitations of scope in action figures and super heroes and how that perpetuates the limitation of scope in pop culture of human beings, especially human beings of colour. Starting from the beginning. In childhood.
Super important issue to tackle.
And, here’s where I add to the problem: I wanted to draw even more out of that show.
I wanted to extend it into a whole show about race and childhood and toys.
Like, looking at the Mamie Clark research from the 1960s on colour dolls and how she changed the way race and childhood imagery was understood; it has had an influence in psychology, cultural studies, art and image-making and of course education.
And I could totally imagine a wider scope that takes those ideas, includes the excellent ones from Daniels’ work and extends even further – Makie dolls, Bratz, Barbie, Fino and Bino dolls, Home-made toys/dolls from non-western cultures, etc.
I wanted to see more, not because I’m culturally greedy (although there is that), but because the influence toys/dolls have on us as adults is significant.
With them we learn to play, to associate, develop identity, understand our body and the abstraction of the internal experience to a external object in identification – we boil down our expansive selves into these very particular objects.
And a show like that would become a museum show about the history of where limitation starts. The history of where adults decide how small a box they can squeeze future adults into, in order to get the best possible outcome for current adults.
Wouldn’t THAT be a cool show to see?
And speaking of home-made toys/dolls….
These cabinets of confiscation were fascinating: A collection of toys/weapons/objects that have been confiscated from school children over the last 30 years.
Hand-written notes, those paper-based things girls play with, knives, flame-throwers (what?!), stones, playing cards, chewing gum, etc.
It was organised according to ‘age’ and ‘gender’. Two cabinets each for girls, two for boys. Two for lower grades and two for higher grades.
That sorting in itself intrigued me.
Yes, there are obvious links between boys and girls of similar ages. But i think it also would be interesting to make the cabinets sortable in different ways.
Like, actual age – what do all 9-year olds hide.
Or chronology – all the things confiscated in 1991, or 2007.
Maybe even by kind of school – what do grammar school kids bring and what do comprehensive school kids bring?
Actually, given the place of class and schooling in the UK, that would be particularly enlightening.
Vack to the display at hand, it was still enlightening for me, as a woman (who was previously a girl at a catholic primary and single-sex private high school) to see what was gendered.
So it wasn’t just in my school – girls really do use words as weapons. And vanity is a weakness (one conditioned, I argue).
So much make up, cruel notes and there was a chewing gum/hair attack sample that was simultaneously gross and stark reminder of the nature of our attack/defence tactics: long-lasting and shame-based.
Boys? Garden-variety violence.
I knew it, but the image of some of the sticks and metal rods brought to highschools still made me go a little weak at the knees. How the hell you’re supposed to cultivate nuanced social interaction when that’s a threat, I have no idea. The fact that men grow up to be sensitive at all? Bravo. Hats off to the sensitive ones!
I do wish shows like both of these could be seen and talked about more. Especially because, given that we all have childhoods and those become our adulthoods/society at large, it’s amazing that more people aren’t fascinated with the history of the small but constant ways in which we really belittle ourselves as humans.
I know, clear reminders of painful history and the failings of the human condition is not traditionally a thing that we enjoy pondering over on a wet Sunday (except if you’re in a cinema), but I think I would like them to be.
Perhaps if we could see these childhoods in museums (in an abstract way) and how they project forward, we might be better able to make decisions about our own adulthoods, or any childhoods we may be in the business of influencing right now.
Afro Super Hero
14 September 2013 – 9 February 2014
9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014
At V&A Museum of Childhood
Cambridge Heath Rd, London E29PA
images pinched from the V&A Museum of Childhood site.