Toys and the Movement of Peoples: What The Museum of Childhood’s Collections Tell Us About Material Culture and Childhood?

On 14 March 2017, the Graduate Workshop was pleased to welcome Dr  Catriona Ellis of the University of Edinburgh whose recent research has examined how childhood was constructed or imagined in colonial South India in the 1920s and 1930. Since submitting her PhD in September 2016, Catriona has volunteered at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. A departure from the more traditional primary sources of her thesis, the experience has provided a fascinating opportunity to engage with a completely different – and contested – form of material culture.

In her paper, Catriona looked principally at the Museum’s Indian collection.  She considered what toys might reveal about Indian children and how toys might also reflect the experiences of children visiting India.  What do they tell us about universal values of childhood? She illustrated her presentation with images of dolls, transparencies and an authentically Indian tak taki.  But in many ways, it was the physical presence of a more contemporary Indian Barbie doll which she had bought for her own daughter, which allowed  Catriona to illustrate just how contested a “toy” might be.  Do we see “Jasmine” through the eyes of the child or the adult?  Is the Barbie simply a reflection of what society dictates, or something which appeals directly to the child’s imagination?  Perhaps she  might become a vehicle for diverse kinds of nostalgia, connecting one generation with another, or providing a link with Empire? In a museum context, does the approach of a collector, or curator (a point picked up in the Question and Answer session), affect its representation and our perceptions?

The Museum, which was opened in 1955 by Councillor Patrick Murray (1908-1981), was one of the first of its kind.  There are a number of non-British toys referred to in the Catalogues, but, frustratingly, provenances are often not recorded. Unfortunately, Murray’s passion for toys was not matched with an assiduous eye for their classification. Toys of Empire, however, clearly provide an identifiable grouping within the Museum’s collection.  In 1987, Diana unnamed (4)Horne donated a pull along buffalo which her father had bought for her in India in the twilight days of Empire.  Forty years on, she described it as “a lovely souvenir of our colonial days”, the buffalo evoking a palpable sense of imperial nostalgia.    But a toy might have had a more didactic purpose.  Catriona showed us examples of transparencies dating back to the late 19th century which appear to represent Indians in stereotypical terms.  Arguably, they were produced to convey a certain cultural message to British children whether or not they lived in India.  The Tak taki ,on the other hand, was an example of a toy which Indian children would have enjoyed.  As it was pulled along, its wheel drove a beating drum, giving the toy its distinctive name.  Catriona showed us an image of an example, probably dating to the 1880s, which had been brought back to Scotland, and known in the donor family as Polly’s Indian or Chinese Toy:  a distinctly Indian toy, traditionally used by Indian children, but in this context a vehicle (literally perhaps) for a sense of imperial nostalgia.

unnamed (3)By virtue of its size and the evident zeal of its collector, the Lovett collection represents a significant part of of the Museum’s overall collection.  In the late 19th/early 20th century Edward Lovett (1852-1933), a London toy collector, amassed 670 dolls from all over the world.  Originally, they were sold to the Museum of Cardiff but in 1961 they were given on permanent loan to the Museum of Childhood.  Lovett’s interest lay principally in Japanese and Chinese dolls but his collection also contains several Indian, mostly, rag dolls.  Catriona argued that the Lovett dolls represent “a material representation of (Lovett’s) understanding of racial and cultural hierarchies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”.  As a collector, Lovett openly played down the artistic significance of the dolls, and implicitly suggested that they revealed gradations of cultural sophistication.  But, in his later writings, he appeared to be alive to the enduring commonality of the toy, and the universality of play.  Catriona considered the seventeen dolls in the Lovett collection.  With one exception, they are relatively simple rag dolls but, as Catriona suggested, their simplicity might have provided greater scope for a child’s imagination.

Catriona finished with Pachisi, a 16th Century Indian Board game, which is said to haunnamed (2)ve originated in the Mughal Court of Fatepur Sikri.  This complex adult board game, played exclusively by the upper castes, was later appropriated and simplified by the British.  It was the forerunner of Ludo.  Catriona showed us an example of the original, acquired in the 1920s and used by the donor’s family until the 1970s.  The evolution and packaging of the game may well tell us more about the attitudes of adults than the play of children.

Toys occupy contested territory but provide a further dimension to our understanding of childhood. Collecting strategies add an extra later of complexity, delineating, even directing our perceptions of childhood.  This well attended presentation stimulated animated discussion.  We wish Catriona well with her continuing research at the Museum of Childhood and look forward to seeing her again at the Graduate Workshop.

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Our next Graduate Workshop will take place on Tuesday 4 April when Grant Collie of Massey University, New Zealand will be speaking on  “Emigrant Scottish Miners in the NZ Tunnelling Company: 1916-1919”

Grant tells the story  of 62 Scottish members of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company who emigrated to New Zealand in  1880-1914.  Previously, many had worked as miners in the central belt of Scotland. But who were they?  And what were the reasons for their emigration?

The Workshop will take place at 1 pm in G 16 of the William Robertson Wing of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology (Doorway 4).

Everyone is most welcome to attend.

Crisis, Migration and Precariousness: The New Galician Diaspora as a Case Study

unnamed (1)On 28 February 2017, we were delighted to welcome Dr Maria Alonso Alonso to the Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop.  Maria obtained her PhD from the University of Vigo in 2014 and is currently based at the University of St Andrews where she holds a a Xunta de Galicia International Postdoctoral Fellowship.  Her work focusses on the Galician diaspora. She has published widely in academic journals; her output also includes short stories, poetry and a novel in the Galician Language.  Her most recent book entitled Transmigrantes Fillas de Precareidade (“Transmigrants , Daughters of Precariousness”), published by Axourere in 2017, challenges an over positive image of migration in order to highlight  the feelings of vulnerability experienced by her own, younger generation.  In a stimulating paper Maria, explored the interconnected themes of crisis, migration and precariousness.

Traditionally, Galicia has been a migrant community.  As Maria observed, it is difficult to find a family unaffected by migration.  In the 19th century, Castile was a popular destination for migrants; at the time of the Spanish Civil War, Latin America, notably Argentina and Uruguay, provided a popular draw.  More recently, it has been Europe.  Factors have included poverty, political instability and unemployment.  Statistics, eloquent of a social crisis, reveal how Spanish unemployment has soared since the beginning of the millennium, rising from 8% in 2006 to 26% in 2012. The trend is most pronounced in the younger generation.  In 2015, youth unemployment (representing the  under 25s) stood at 51%; in the same year graduate unemployment stood at 30%; in Germany the comparative figure was 3%. Over the past five years, over one million Spanish citizens have emigrated; a significant number have come to the UK.  In 2015, on the basis of Spanish Government figures, 45,000 Spanish nationals were formally registered as living in the UK; most were between the ages of 25 and 35, and approximately 20% Galician.

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Maria’s family like many others were affected by migration.  This photograph includes a number of family members including her mother, aunts and uncles, and grandparents

However, as Maria argued, it is important to recognise the presence of a push and pull factor. In the late 1990s, Galicia became a host country.  Spain, which was undergoing a period of political transition, became part of the Euro zone.  It opened its borders to foreign labourers including Africans, Europeans (particularly the Swiss and Germans) and first and second generation emigrants to Latin America (the so called retornados).  Many of the new immigrants were employed in the construction and service industries; at the same time many professional Galicians emigrated to north Europe and the USA.   In many respects, the boom proved transient as images of Castellon airport and Santiago de Compostela City of Culture testify.  As much as nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, nobody ever expected the Spanish Crisis.

The New Galician Diaspora is characterised by a sense of precariousness as the title of Maria’s recent book suggests.  The Galician Government has promoted an official narrative based on a sense of Sentimentality for the home country from abroad.  Thus Galicians, in the words of Helena Miguélez-Carballeira, “are a nostalgic people…. (who) live in harmonious communion with their landscape…yearning for its beauty”.  According to this received view, emigration is not as traumatic as it might seem.  In fact, emigration is the equivalent of success.  However, this rigid agenda blots out stories of precariousness.  New narratives have developed to challenge the official line. The  stereopytoes and metaphors commonly associated with Sentimentality have been analysed and challenged in the work of Carballeira.    Since 2015, a flurry of publications have provided a critique of Sentimentality. Eloy Domínguez Serén, although comparatively unknown within Galicia, has demonstrated on the basis of his own experiences, how feelings of alienation become important in the context of migration.  The concept of Saudade, almost untranslatable into English, captures the vital angst of living abroad. Manuel Forcadela goes further.  For Forcadela, Saudade is like a form of castration.

Somewhat surprisingly there is nobody currently working on Galician Studies at the University of Edinburgh.  Maria concluded by suggested that important comparisons might be drawn between her native Galicia and Scotland, i.e. as communities existing within hegemonic powers.

This well attended paper provoked interest and debate.  Maria’s scholarly approach was enhanced by the authority of personal experience.  We look forward to welcoming Maria at future graduate workshops and research seminars.

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Business, Farming and Jolly Good Times: 4 October 2016

On Tuesday 4 October, the Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop welcomed Shane Smith, a third year PhD student from the University of Northumbria.  Shane’s paper, entitled “Business, Farming and Jolly Good Times”, charted the migration of the British and Irish soldiers to the Perth settlement in Upper Canada between 1815 and 1850.

Perth, south-west of Ottawa, formed the focal point of significant military re-settlement in the years immediately after the Napoleonic wars.  Between 1815 and 1831, 1425 soldiers, together with their wives and children, settled in Perth. From the early 1830s, the balance shifted significantly to civilian emigration.

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Examples of Land Grants: Libraries and Archives Canada, Upper Canada Land Petitions, Volume 421, Microfilm 2739, Folio 48 e (Shane Smith)

The central contention of Shane’s paper was that a small group within the military elite was well placed to dominate the administration, agriculture and business of an evolving community.  Its members also played a pivotal role within the social life of the settlement.   Seniority within the military enabled former officers to benefit from sizable grants of land of as much as 1000 acres.  Allocation was essentially based on a tariff system according to seniority.  In addition, all former military personnel could reasonably expect to receive one acre of land within the urban community of Perth.  Shane considered the involvement and advancement of notable individuals in the civic life of Perth including Roderick Matheson and Anthony Lesley. The military, he argued, formed part of an interconnected world where patronage played a vital role.

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Our next Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop takes place on Monday 17 October when Dr Stephen Mullen of the University of Glasgow will speak on the emigration of Scots to the Caribbean between 1776 and 1838.  His paper is entitled “Toil and Care under the Scorching Sun:  Scots in Jamaica, 1776-1838”.