Hi! I’m Ben, a PhD student and one of the volunteer researchers for the upcoming exhibit on childhood. As part of this research, I examined the Cambridgeshire Archives for evidence of children in any of the documents there, such as work contracts and jail records, to see what stories these might reveal. Unfortunately, whilst there were plentiful examples of children as visible figures in the landscape of historic Cambridgeshire, one of the places where they occurred most frequently was in Coroner’s reports.
Looking through these reports acted as a stark reminder that the childhood of today, in which we think of a time of leisure, play and innocence, is an all-too modern construction. I was taken aback by both the frequency of child deaths—we all know that high infant mortality was a fact of life in the past, but it was sobering to be confronted with it quite so consistently—but also their manner.
Among the causes listed, many were expected, such as consumption or malnourishment, but others were unusual and, occasionally, horrifying. I saw the story of a young boy crushed by a cart while playing in Trumpington street; more than one child was killed through household accidents involving boiling water or fires; but perhaps the saddest were the reports of nameless newborns found drowned or in boxes ‘with head injuries’, abandoned and possibly even killed by parents who could not afford or bear to look after them.
Whilst a very interesting experience, my time researching the county archives could not help but make me realise just how different an experience childhood was not even two centuries ago.
Ben Hinson, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge
As Chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology I have the great pleasure of getting to know about the work of many organisations up and down the UK and never more so than at our annual conference. This year’s conference theme was “Working Together: a collective responsibility for archaeology” and details of this amazing partnership project in Cambridge were eagerly shared with, and received by, more than 50 attendees.
Whilst the focus of the project is ‘archaeology and children’ what really stands out for me is the collaboration between different types of archaeologists as well as the community. This is definitely an example of a step in the right direction for our profession but also for the many people who will benefit from the results, whether through direct and inclusive participation in its delivery or simply by visiting the exhibition when it opens.
But why is this so important and why more than ever right now?
The simple answer is that as archaeologists we tend to define ourselves by the specific roles we play, in museums, in units, for the local authority or as academics, but what we really should be doing is thinking of ourselves collectively as archaeologists – we are after all concerned with the same subject matter but just come at from different angles! Clearly we also all value the importance of being able to share what we have discovered and why this is important with members of the public and in turn we enable them to act as advocates on our behalf. It can’t have gone un-noticed that many public services will suffer as the result of austerity measures and these include those that cut across all aspects of the archaeological and historic environment. Engaging and successful projects like this one play a vital role in breaking down barriers not just between archaeologists but between individuals and organisations – if we don’t begin to find ways to understand better how each of us works then how can we ever hope to find ways we can work better together? If communities aren’t ever involved in what we do how will projects ever provide personal resonance and therefore be of importance to them?
From what I have read and heard about this particular project, the collaborative process has been extremely beneficial – building something better together for everyone concerning a subject matter that we can all easily relate to, without period, material or collection restraints. I for one can’t wait to see the results!!
Gail Boyle FSA
Chair of SMA & Senior Curator (Archaeology), Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives
 The Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA), is recognised by Arts Council England as the Subject Specialist Network for British Archaeology and as such provides a focus for the expertise and collections knowledge of collections managers, keepers and curators throughout the UK. SMA has a number of objectives but significantly it is concerned with the role that museums play as guardians of a vital part of the nation’s heritage and as the appropriate location for the storage and interpretation of all archaeological material. www.socmusarch.org.uk
It’s all getting exciting now as we enter the final stretch of the exhibition planning. There are people working on conservation, photography, planning, mount making and text writing. The website is being developed, and there’s a real sense of anticipation in the air. We’ve had the usual glitches and hiccups: one of our team here had to disappear to the other end of the country to collect an object; and I’m pretty certain that plans for one of the cases got as far as ‘artefact assemblage plan G’ before we settled on a final option. Anyway, we got there: we have a great range of objects and hopefully a fascinating story to tell.
Last time I wrote on this blog I referred to learning from each other, which after all is one of the things we intended to get out of this. So what have we learned to date? Well, we know that Cambridge Museums appear to have a wide range of beautiful objects, far more so than we ever envisaged. I suppose that’s the benefit of holding a collection that dates back to the mid-19th century. It’s also been quite humbling to see the enthusiasm from other museums for this project: once our objective had been explained it seems to me others were really keen to be involved. Hence we have exhibits covering from the lower Palaeolithic to Victorian, so fairly eclectic. Or so it seems to me: perhaps it’s usual for museums!
I also want to pay tribute to those involved in this project: the curators and team at MAA, the officers here at CambsCC and all those who have been brought in to add their thoughts and ideas to the process. When we open on 30 January you will be seeing the fruits of the wide collaborations that have been behind this project. How do I know we’re onto a good thing? I was at the recent celebration of 25 years of PPG16 and developer funded archaeology (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/building-the-future-transforming-our-past/) and a colleague who had heard Imogen speak at the recent SMA conference congratulated me on a joint project between local authority archaeologists and museums. I think she meant congratulations to all of us.
Quinton Carroll, Historic Environment Team Manager
There have been some interesting challenges already in bringing this exhibition into being. One that we are still resolving is how we make an exhibition about children that is not only for children.
Naturally we want children to come and enjoy the exhibition – they are an important part of our audience (23% of visitors to MAA come in family groups). We will be employing someone to work with school groups while the exhibition is open and are already planning drop-in events and workshops aimed at children and adults. But saying that we are doing an exhibition about children often makes people think that this will be the only target audience.
It is a delicate balance. We would like all our visitors to learn something when they come to view the exhibition without feeling patronised or that it is “not for them”. But how do we translate the academic research that we have been analysing into something both meaningful and accessible? How do we create an environment in which both children and adults feel welcome and able to make their own discoveries? What can we do to facilitate learning on a topic where the subject matter is often hidden or close to invisible? And how can we create opportunities for intergenerational conversation around the exhibition themes?
A lot of my research in the University of Cambridge Museums has looked at the way visitors use exhibition spaces. We have a reasonable idea of how little time people spend reading text panels and what sort of displays capture and hold attention. We need to be clever in the way we layer information so that even the most ‘time poor’ visitor can still capture our main message. We hope to include elements that will appeal to our younger visitors and help them to understand our main message as well. Finally, we hope to use one of MAA’s best assets: our team of gallery attendants, many of them volunteers. This group will be some of the strongest advocates for the exhibition, so the project team will be spending time with them, giving them background information and presenting the research so that they can, in turn, help all our visitors.
Sarah-Jane Harknett, Outreach Organiser, Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
The collaboration between the Cambridgeshire County Council’s Historic Environment Team (CHET) and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has highlighted the interesting way that our research processes differ due to the different natures of our work. At CHET we work directly from the Historic Environment Record (HER) – a database that contains information about the historic environment of Cambridgeshire. It covers everything from excavations that have taken place, artefacts that have been found, details of all the listed buildings and Scheduled Ancient Monuments in the county which is then all digitally mapped.
Every time an excavation is finished or an object is found this information is put into the HER as part of an Event or Monument Record. These records are highly detailed and cover things like geographical location of the find, find type e.g. ‘bracelet’, find material e.g. ‘copper alloy’ and period e.g. ‘Roman’. We can then search the HER using these details as search tools to find objects associated with children. After that we track down the source linked to that record which gives further details of the find (which might be an excavation report or a published book) and research more!
Due to the nature of archaeological excavation, the majority of our finds from CHET so far have been juvenile burials and associated artefacts.
Gabrielle Day, Assistant Archaeologist (HER), CHET