Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

American Childhood in 25 Artifacts: Online Publishing in Childhood Studies

by Patrick Cox

Co-Chair, Children and Childhood Studies, MAPACA


To be honest, this collection of 25 artifacts of American childhood raises more questions than it answers, and it raises them by inference and omission rather than by overtly asking. This is perhaps a condition of the form we have chosen: we asked contributors for one image and 50-500 words about it. We wanted 25 artifacts, each with enough text to describe it and its significance, but short enough that a person could browse through several of them in one sitting. We wanted each post to be provocative enough to prompt readers to respond, but short and informal enough that readers felt they could respond without needing to spend months doing additional research. It was conundrum we created for ourselves, and perhaps fitting it has produced a wonderful ambiguity. We now have a collection of numerous products from the marketplace with just the barest mention of children as consumers. More than half the artifacts in the collection are toys, but there is little discussion of the role of play in children’s lives. And our 500-word limit maybe left just enough space to describe a teething stick with built in whistle from 1609, but no consideration of how this little-known tool of comfort and entertainment fits with an early American conception of childhood as inherently evil and in need of harsh instruction. 

But that’s where you come in: this collection leaves so much to be said, and asked, and argued. The answers to questions present and inferred, and the questions that still need to be asked, are up to you. The contributors of these pieces have endeavored on a brave mission that does not end with the publication of their words on the pages of an obscure anthology, left for a few years before anyone remarks on them in the next anthology to join the dusty shelf. This is a dynamic publication that, like a live theatre performance, includes and depends upon its audience. It includes the readers’ contribution. It is real-time transactional reading, mutual meaning-making, and a conversation about American Childhood.

The conversation has been started by a diverse group and is already vibrant, far-flung, and at times self-contradictory. It’s a fun and thought-provoking collection. It is multi-disciplinary, in multiple ways. The artifacts in this collection come from media, literature, art history, the marketplace, the past. There are toys, medical devices, graves, furniture… Contributions come from across the academic disciplines, from scholars in university departments of American Studies, English, Architecture, Folklore, Education, Women’s Studies… Not all the contributors (and not all participants in Childhood Studies) come from academia. We received contributions from archeologists, re-enactors, collectors, and several artifacts here are housed in museums and were submitted by curators, making a significant but weirdly uncommon partnership between academia and museums. 

These objects come from the lived experience of childhood which insists on a multi-disciplinary approach. It’s not multi-disciplinary as a result of scholars from across the academy having an abstract discussion of shared epistemological perspectives informing one another through varied methodological approaches, and it goes beyond wallowing in questions of multi- vs. trans- vs. cross-disciplinarity. This childhood studies is multi-disciplinary because childhood is multi-disciplinary. The collection demonstrates that multi-disciplinary childhood studies grows organically from the experiences of children as readers, students, creators, consumers, and players. Sociology, history, or what-have-you simply would not be enough to cover all that is here. It takes a village to study “the child.”

This collection is also an experiment in digital publishing and how knowledge is shared, especially in the academy. As we said in our original CFP, “In addition to embracing 21st century publication and communication technology, we hope this project will allow people to participate in MAPACA’s 25th Anniversary who are unable to attend the conference and expand the discussion of children and American Popular Culture to include a wider audience.” In the 21st century, we can think of little reason why the sites of major knowledge exchange in academia, especially those sponsored by academic associations, would be limited by either physical location or traditional routes of publication. Based on the wide range and large number of submissions we received, we believe we are not alone, and we are hopeful for a robust online discussion about these artifacts to extend the conversation even further to those who cannot spare the time or increasing expense of travel to location-specific conferences. 

As this project makes part of one conference’s content and scholarship available digitally, it prompts us to consider a similar value in making all of our research available digitally. (We’re happy to say MAPACA is thinking of it.) Of course, this entails more than open access publication of traditionally drafted articles (though we are in favor of this). It also means moving beyond a belief that “the conversation” can only take place among very few people in peer reviewed, slowly published monographs and articles in journals nobody reads, housed in libraries and databases very few can access. It means sharing our knowledge in formats that fit the online world and use the 21st century communication technology that many outside of academia already use: images, video, audio, blogs, blogging carnivals, discussion posts, crowdsourced collections like this one, etc. Each of these forms, and any others we might come up with, are as flawed, inadequate, and incomplete as books and articles but in different ways (we’ve already discussed what’s missing from this one) but they also each come with advantages. And they share the same aim of traditional academic publishing: making our work better, available, and accessible to a far wider audience because we believe it really matters. Online publication in any form is not a cure-all: once you bust through the hardened walls of Ivory Tower publishing and ossified ideas about “what counts” for promotions and raises, you inevitably encounter the banks of the digital divide. But if we actually confront that divide with our own eyes and experiences, not just theorize about it from afar, I suspect we’ll find the digital divide does far less to restrict the dissemination of information than current academic publishing practices.

I humbly suggest we all know this is true. When we know we, and so many others, receive so much of our information digitally, and gratefully make use of the digitization efforts of curators, archivists, and librarians, it is only peculiar not to distribute our own research as feely and widely.

For now, enjoy this effort and join the conversation on Childhood in Popular American Culture contained in these posts. The contributions are listed in roughly chronological order. Each individual post has a space for comments, responses, rebuttals, further readings… Click the “Reply” link on any post (including this one) to add your thoughts to the mix. We have also created an additional forum for discussions of the collection in general that don’t fit under any single artifact. See any themes emerging from the collection overall? Who is—and isn’t—the American Child represented here? Care to propose your own artifact? Or interrogate the voids: no artifacts from children at work? No teddy bear? Nothing from the 21st century? Let us know!


                 List of 25 Childhood ArtifactsFirst Artifact


As someone who has worked in the museum field since 1980, I was struck by the sentence in Patrick's introduction: "several artifacts here are housed in museums and were submitted by curators, making a significant but weirdly uncommon partnership between academia and museums."

I've been affiliated with 5 museums in the last 34 years. One of them was housed at a university, two were private nonprofits (one big, one small), and two were governed by state agencies in two different states. In each of them the projects that stand out in memory involved partnerships between the museum and academia, leading me to the following (random) musings:

What is the definition of academia? Is it an institution that is sanctioned to confer degrees? That's about the only distinguishing feature I can see between the museum and the university. Otherwise, all 5 of the museums I've worked in had education as the cornerstone of the mission, and were dedicated to the creation and advancement of knowledge through object-based research and teaching. The products of their scholarship were not just exhibitions but also books and the catalog of their collections (though admittedly, some of those collections were in dire need of research).

What is the definition of partnership? In all of the museums where I've worked the curators never had less than the MA, MFA, or MS degree; in 3 of the museums the professional staff also included historians, scientists, anthropologists, and archeologists who held a Ph.D. By virtue of these advanced degrees, the colleagues I've worked with always had built-in academic networks to draw on, either directly (e.g. call the former professor to serve as an exhibit advisor) or indirectly (dig out the former syllabus to suggest a few good books your volunteers might read). All 5 of the museums where I worked had board directors or advisory council members who were "academics" at universities.  

What is the definition of uncommon? Of course, a sample of 5 is pathetic to try to prove any point, and my personal experience may not be generalizable to anyone or anywhere else. Having also worked for organizations and councils that served statewide museum constituencies, I am well aware that in some states the norm for a community museum is a very small building and collection, a tiny budget, open only 2 days a week during the summer months, and entirely volunteer-driven. Seeking out a partnership with the nearest university is a much lower priority than keeping the doors open. Even here, though, a really good state humanities council will strive to support as many museums as its own funds will allow, and will require "academic" consultants as a condition for even a $250 grant. 

 Which brings me to my final musing. Those projects that stand out in memory were grant-funded, almost always with public money, coming from either the state or federal level. How did we as a society get to the point that support for the common good of public education has become not only uncommon, but even weird? 

Thanks Debbie. Sorry for the slow response here, we’ve needed to do a bit of work “under the hood” at H-Net to get these post filed correctly on this site. Should be good to go now.

When I talk about academia here, I have to say I am not talking about institutions that have education as their cornerstone, and I should be more specific. As I’m talking about academic research, I’m really think of those universities that have research as their cornerstone. Very different institutions, whose faculty are focussed on very different work that all too often has less of a focus on reaching public ears and eyes. I’m happy to think of education-focussed universities working more closely with museums in a range of ways, and I don’t doubt it. But when it comes to academic research, I think there’s a pretty big divide between those who research in universities and those who research as curators, archivists, and librarians. In practice, dialogue between them is very limited: researchers from academia and researchers from museums are not at the same conferences, not publishing in the same journals, not citing each others books.

Popular Culture Studies and Childhood Studies are both great fields to demonstrate this. In this collection we have two entries on Barbie, one from a curator in a historical society and one from a PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction; how many journals would they share space in? What conference panel would they both be on? How often would scholars from these areas read each other? They're two very different entries, but they enhance each other. I have one foot in academia where I study “edutainment” but my museum colleagues speak of “informal learning.” We’re not quite speaking different languages, more like different dialects: we can understand each other, but we maintain our differences, and separateness. I’m trying to say those differences are pretty minimal and superficial, and we need get over them and start talking to each other. Searches in scholarly publishing databases for “edutainment” yield very different results from searches for “informal learning,” yet the contents of the articles overlap and could greatly inform each other. 

In short, I’m interested in cases where people are talking about the same things, but not with each other. This has everything to do with what groups consider valid knowledge but also valid conversation. Many (though still a pretty small number) of academics, for example, are making their way online, blogging, and tweeting, and some have been denied tenure for publishing their research in that way: “the conversation” only happens in very specific places. I think something similar exists between academic research and museum research: we stick with our journals, you stick with yours. This limits researchers’ interactions and the exchange of knowledge. But that exchange, pretty necessary for multi-disciplinary research, is why I see a need for greater use of less formal publication formats like this one.