‘time changes’: Visitor Responses to the ‘Growing Up with Books’ exhibition

SELCIE’s first exhibition ‘Growing up with Books’ ran from June until December 2018 at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. It celebrated the culmination of SELCIE researchers’ cataloguing and research work in the Museum of Childhood’s book collection.

We had been exploring the collection since 2016; reading everything from 17th century Latin grammar books to 20th century ‘classics.’ The collection is uniquely special in its representation of Scottish writers, publishers, and readers (evident in marginalia and book plates). In the exhibition we had the task of showcasing these strengths in the collection, and also communicating an engaging potted history of children’s books in Scotland to a diverse museum audience. The exhibition was also accompanied by a range of interactive events for children and adults alike.

Visitors were invited to give feedback on the exhibition via postcards. This blog post collates some of the visitor feedback; hopefully you find the responses as enlightening, touching, and funny as we do!

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Naturally many of the feedback cards were populated with scribbles, doodles, and drawings. These can still provide insight into exhibition interpretation, such as this drawing of a school girl with the caption ‘time changes’.

 

It is clear that particular display cases had an effect on visitors – the fairy tale section was particularly popular. One postcard read: ‘I like reading and writing and I love all sorts of fairy tales. This exhibition inspired me to take my old fairy tales books and read.’ Another gestured to the display of scrapbooks and other examples of children’s marginalia and manuscript culture: ‘I love the scrapbooks thank you so much!’

The historical books on display were favoured by some young visitors. Sienna Lamont, age 8, from Glasgow, wrote: ‘I have lerned [sic] lots of history and I am only 8 years old and it [sic] so amazing.’

 

One visitor wrote that they learned ‘how small books were in olden days’ and another observed that ‘the old books are in such a good condition.’ Ella commented that ‘it was more fun then [sic] I thought it would be’, which is a positive result!

Some young visitors expressed that they had learned something from the exhibition. Constance commented that it was ‘very intresting [sic] very educational.’

Isabella, age 7, from Stranraer, wrote: ‘This inspired me because I dident [sic] know the reading books where [sic] like that.’ We think that in this drawing Isabella is recreating the colourful early nineteenth-century alphabet books which were on display.

Several postcards from older visitors suggested that the exhibition stirred up childhood memories for them. One visitor wrote: ‘It was such a lovely time remembering about long forgotten times, I leave hear [sic] today remembering who I am, thank you.’ We’d love to hear more stories of childhood reading. You can share your memories with SELCIE via this link: https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/selcie/your-memories/

Finally, we received the one critique which we had all feared:

 

This post written by Lois

 

 

‘Riding the First Wave of Children’s Literature’

Kathryn Downing, a Masters student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh, spent the spring amidst the pre-1850 book collections at the Museum of Childhood. You can read her fascinating reflections on the different trends and impulses in children’s literature which she observed at the Museum’s own blog, Stories of Childhood

 

Book Launch

SELCIE is delighted to announce that a new publication –  The Land of Story-Books: Scottish Children’s Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Sarah Dunnigan and Shu-Fang Lai (Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2019) –  will be launched on Friday 14th June at 5pm at Edinburgh University, kindly hosted in association with the Department of English Literature’s SWINC [Scottish Writing in the Nineteenth Century], alongside the launch of Edinburgh University Press’s Commemorating Peterloo. Please join us for this joint celebration.

Location: 50 George Square, second floor, in the space outside room 2.43.

Please contact Sarah for more information: s.m.dunnigan@ed.ac.uk

For details on the 1819 symposium which precedes the event, see  http://www.swinc.englit.ed.ac.uk/events/scotland-in-1819/  

 

This collection of twenty essays is the first extensive study of the range and diversity of Scottish children’s literature in Gaelic, Scots, and English, encompassing chapbooks, poetry, popular fiction, fairy tales and more by both well-loved and unknown writers. It also includes a chapter by some of our very own SELCIE team on some treasures from the Museum of Childhood’s archive. Beautifully illustrated, it brings to life the materiality of children’s reading lives and culture in the period.

 

 

Science, Nature, and Children’s Books: finding Jane Marcet in the archive

Our hours spent happily in the Museum of Childhood’s archive revealed the richness of its collection of nature and science books written for young people, and confirmed the magnitude and diversity of women’s writing for children. Both elements will be on show in the Museum’s forthcoming exhibition, Growing Up With Books, which opens on June 1st!

A detail from the cover of one of the loveliest nature books in the collection!

But they are strikingly combined in a very particular mode of writing —  one which combines a flourishing culture of science writing for children and young people in the c19th century with the creative and intellectual interests of women in scientific developments. Beatrix Potter is not alone in being a children’s writer with a keen fascination for natural science.

This was crystallised one day when we picked up a book called The Seasons written by a woman called Jane Marcet, first published in 1832.  Though its familiar-sounding title might echo Romantic literature, this is in fact a collection of stories intended  for ‘very young children’ . These present a world in which nature unfolds through the year’s natural cycle in active and participatory ways for the volume’s fictional child protagonists who are a boy called Willy and his sister Ann.  Encouraged by his mother — ‘You must open up your eyes, Willy, and observe as well as you can’ —  the child peers inside a bud picked from a horse-chestnut tree.

A portrait of Jane Marcet

In another chapter, a little mouse intrudes through a hole in a corner of the nursery to enchant Willy at first, then to provoke him to ‘tantrums’ when the terrified housemaid suggests feline intervention! A fairly happy compromise for all is reached by the end  –  but along the way the story suggests that children’s sympathy for, and kindness towards, animals should be combined with respect for their natural instincts and habitats. It implies a rhythm and harmony existing both within nature and the domestic order which even the nicest of little mice shouldn’t disturb.

Such miniature nature narratives are sprinkled with a dose of moral conservatism. But they also try to teach their young readers to engage in close and empirical observation of the creatures, plants, and living things which encompass their world. The children’s curiosity leads them to discover everyday lessons about physiology, botany, the weather, and even the redness of robin feathers…

Illustrative detail from *The Child’s Zoological Garden*

Jane Marcet (1769-1858) passionately believed that science should be made accessible. With her husband, a medical graduate of Edinburgh University, she belonged to a scientific and intellectual community which had diverse creative and educational interests. She knew Maria Edgeworth, novelist, educationalist, and children’s writer (the Museum archive holds a number of her books), and the extraordinary Mary Sommerville —  the scientist, mathematician, and astronomer who came from the Borders and spent her girlhood in in Fife and Edinburgh.

As her extensive publications attest (such as the Conversations on Chemistry which took place between a teacher and her two female students), Marcet believed in the democratisation of knowledge. Her books reached a variety of readerly communities who usually suffered from various forms of social and cultural exclusion —  children and young people; women; members of mechanics’ institutes. And they were famously read by a youthful Michael Faraday when he worked as an apprentice bookbinder.

Marcet seemingly turned to writing for children and young people later in life. Ever mindful of the potential dullness of any subject, she enriched a grammar book by references to fairy tales and sponge cakes! For her younger readers, her enduring aim was to make science ‘familiar’. This intimacy can be seen in The Seasons where the child-worlds of garden and home become a playground for scientific revelation, and the mother is portrayed as a figure of learning as well as nurture.

In one way, this might be construed as a way of ‘talking down’ to children yet in another as simultaneously respecting and expanding a child’s worldview. Whilst obviously very different in form and style, one can see a connection between her work and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales which so vividly convey a sense of wonder and life in natural things. [As demonstrated above in SELCIE’s banner image, taken from the botanically-themed front cover of an Andersen edition!]

And it also brings to mind the beautiful nature illustrations of Jemima Wedderburn (1823-1909), the Edinburgh-born artist, ornithologist, children’s illustrator, and constructor of scientific toys.

Jemima Wedderburn – painstaking artist of the natural world, and cousin of the Edinburgh physicist, James Clerk Maxwell

In such ways, then, a single book chanced upon by the SELCIE team in the Museum archive opens up a world of interconnecting skeins between scientific creativity, children’s books, and the women who were so frequently their makers and illustrators.

                                                                                    This post written by Sarah

Further reading

Debbie Bark, ‘Science for Children’, in The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth Century British Literature and Science, edited by John Holmes and Sharon Ruston (2017)

Elizabeth J. Morse, ‘Jane Haldimand Marcet’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Kathryn A. Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind (2001)

‘Jane Marcet’, Science History Institute, https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/jane-marcet

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, edited by Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey and Margaret Rossiter (2000)

Picture This

Picture This 

What’s the relationship between text and image in illustrated children’s books? In this blog, Niamh reflects on this question, thrown up by having to choose between a multitude of beautiful different editions of the same text for our ‘Growing Up With Books’ exhibition.

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As you know, the SELCIE group has been deciding which books will end up in the exhibition and the catalogue next year. I have no need to tell you how hard it is to making such choices. However, during this time, I have come across a difficulty that I had not really thought about until now: how to evaluate volumes that contain the same text but have differing illustrations.

Dr Sarah Dunnigan and I are putting together the “other world” cabinet, a box that will showcase magic, fairies and various other enchantments; we decided that, for this, the Scottish author J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan would grace us with its esteemed presence. However, in our numerous boxes, there are countless versions of the text. This got me wondering how far does illustration work in conjunction with the text of a book.

Some writers are particularly demanding in what they want the pictures in their books to demonstrate, as was the case of author Lewis Carroll and cartoonist-cum-illustrator John Tenniel: ‘The charts [Carroll] drew up for the sequence of llustrations [sic] include not only meticulous numberings, endlessly scratched out, redrafted and revised. … He wrote copiously to Tenniel to monitor his progress and control his interpretations’ (Warner). So many questions spring from these actions. To list a few: (i) How far do illustrations work independently of the text? (ii) What happens after the work no longer must be printed with these illustrations? (iii) How much power does the illustrator have over the narrative of the story? (iv) If the author has demanded a set of drawings be commissioned for his or her text, then does it become a different piece of work if other illustrations are used? I think these are very important issues, which demand close consideration but that does not mean I have any settled opinions on the matter.

If one were to argue that such things are unimportant then he or she would do well to consider the situation as applied to picture books or comic books: two components that work less with the written word and more with the illustrations. As one who is currently researching postcolonial paraliterature, including Hugo Pratt’s ‘Corto Maltese’ series, I would say that a lot of information is implicit in what appears in the frame, as opposed to what is explicitly declared in speech bubbles. Indeed, within a comic strip, ideas can subtly be diffused to and absorbed by the reader/viewer, in just as many ways as the written words of a text can be transmitted.

In choosing which Peter Pan text to exhibit, this idea of the importance of illustrations and their differing values and meanings has really come into focus for me. With that in mind, which volume of Barrie’s text should be chosen to show the general public? I am hoping that we can exhibit as many as possible, in part to manifest these ideas but, additionally, to give a showcase to as many different artists’ ideas as space allows.

References

Warner, Marina. ‘Curiouser and curiouser.’ Tate Etc. 1 Sept. 2011 <http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/curiouser-and-curiouser> Web.