Uncovering childhood in museums

Personal Reflections By Amanda Hoogestraat, Twitter @AmehAnthro

On my recent tour of museums in the UK, I saw small reminders of children in the exhibits featuring past societies. Children were obviously a part of every community, but are underrepresented in museum collections. There is a museum devoted to childhood in both London and Edinburgh, but perhaps other museums should consider adding more children’s items to their collections for a more balanced representation of life in the communities it displays.

For many of the museums that had childhood material culture, shoes or cradles were the only items on view.

Four out of the 55 museums that I visited had children’s skeletal remains on display; usually infants and mostly with an adult skeletons nearby. Rarely did I see older children.

However, it was the toys that interested me the most; to see how the cherished play items were very similar to those of today.

I also observed how visiting children interacted with the exhibits, especially at museums not designed specifically for them. Some of these museums had created play areas pertaining to a display nearby.

Surprisingly, the British Motor Museum was a place that had children’s programs and school tours.

I think everyone enjoys seeing items from a childhood different from our own lives or from our own childhoods. It reminds us that across time and location, children were an integral part of the society.

The notorious ‘baby murderer’ from New Zealand

One of the most high profile cases of infanticide was committed by Minnie Dean in the late 19th century, also gaining infamy as the only woman in New Zealand to receive the death penalty for her crimes. During my childhood I heard many different stories of her hideous acts, made even more pertinent given that I grew up in the same small Southland town that these crimes were committed 100 years earlier. The stories revolved around how she murdered infants by piercing their fontanelles (‘soft-spots’ on the top of their heads) with hairpins, concealed them in hat boxes, and disposed of them in rivers. Kids in the playground at our local school used to taunt others by saying, “watch out or Minnie Dean will get you!”

Minnie Dean (1844-1895) was a ‘baby-farmer’ who cared for infants and children in an informal adoption relationship in exchange for money. This type of work was attractive to lower income women in New Zealand at the time, and in other parts of the British Empire. Those she took into care were largely illegitimate children.

Minnie and her husband Charles had financial issues, with records of filing for bankruptcy. After a fire destroyed their home they lived in a very small twenty-two foot by twelve foot house. At any one time there could be up to nine children under the age of three in her care.

In 1889 a six-month-old infant died in her care, and two years later a six-week-old baby died. The inquest from the six-week-old-baby concluded that the death was from natural causes and the other children at her house at the time were well cared for but that their living conditions were inadequate. In an era of high infant mortality (about 100 per 1000 births in NZ), it isn’t surprising that that some of the children would die from illness.

Minnie started to gain even more police interest when it was found that she had been looking for more children to care, as well as attempting, unsuccessfully, to take out life insurance policies on some of the babies.

In 1892 the police took into their care a three-week-old who Dean had adopted from a single mother for £25. The baby was reported to be in a malnourished state.

Then in 1895 Minnie was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox. However, on the return trip she was reported to only have the hatbox. She was subsequently arrested and police searched her property and found the bodies of two babies, later identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter, and the skeleton of an older boy (whom Dean later claimed had drowned). An inquest found that Dorothy Carter had died from an overdose of opiate laudanum, commonly used to calm babies at the time.

Before her death by hanging in August 1895, Dean wrote her own account of her life. In total, apart from her adopted children, she claimed to have cared for twenty-six children. Of these, five were found in good health after her arrest (figure below, and Esther Wallis, one of her adopted children), six had died in her care, and one had been given back to her parents. This leaves 14 children unaccounted for.

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There was, understandably, intense public interest around Minnie Dean’s case. Around the time of her convictions macabre dolls in miniature hat boxes were said to have been sold as souvenirs outside the Invercargill courtroom where Dean was tried.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.30.47 PM‘Minnie Dean dolls’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/minnie-dean-dolls, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Oct-2014

Later, Minnie Dean’s own defence lawyer Alfred Hanlon wrote:

Sober, home-loving folk from end to end of the country shuddered … when the grim and ghastly story of Minnie Dean’s infamy was narrated by the prosecution. Imagine a being with the name and appearance of a woman boldly using a public railway train for the destruction of her helpless victims, sitting serene and unperturbed in a carriage with one tiny corpse in a tin box at her feet and another enshrouded in a shawl and secured by travelling straps in the luggage rack at her head.

 

After her conviction the New Zealand government made the process of foster parenting more regulated to stop tragedies like this happening again.

In 1994 Historian Lynley Hood published a book, Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, which raises some questions surrounding the fairness of her trial and the facts in the case. Was she a victim of hypocrisy of Victorian society doing the dirty work of caring for unwanted and illegitimate children? One will never truly know, but her name remains part of New Zealand history and grisly folklore today.

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To Achieve the Impossible: Research and study leave with children

Recently, there has been a study published by researchers at my own University on the experience of Research and Study Leave (RSL) or sabbatical for men and women. It found  that families are negatively affected to taking RSL with international travel due to childcare requirements and associated costs.

I am lucky that I am in a permanent position and at a University that supports RSL. I am also ‘lucky’ that I have recently sold my house. The small proceeds from this have allowed me to pay for my 2- and 11-year-olds airfares and childcare, which has thus far cost over NZ$15,000, plus continued payment of daycare fees to keep the enrollment of my 2-year-old at our University childcare.

What I am truly lucky for is the child-centered cultures that I work in and the amazing colleagues and students I have who accommodate them. The best place in accommodating my children has been in Thailand and Laos where friends and my local nanny have been absolutely fabulous. I have tried to plan this stint of fieldwork so as my 11-year-old is away at a time that includes her school break and to work around a visiting fellowship to the UK at the end of the year. However, this timing has also meant that it is HOT and hard for my kids. My 11-year-old misses her friends, but she has been extraordinarily self-motivated at doing her schoolwork each day (even in the weekends) working on her maths, reading and writing. I actually have to tell her to stop doing it at times so she gets out of the house!

Research highlights thus far have been working on the human remains from the Plain of Jars site in Laos excavated under the direction of Dougald O’Reilly and Louise Shewan. This site is under consideration for World Heritage Status and has gained archaeological interest from researchers around the world. I have also been continuing with my data collection from the infants and children from a Thai Iron Age site (see my post from early this year). This season I have found several very pre-term infants. This is of significance in indicating poor maternal health in this past population, and further supports our developing model of health change during this turbulent time of agricultural and social change.

IMG_3259Our visit to the Plain of Jars site 1.

 

IMG_2969A 24-26 week old foetus from the Iron Age site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand.

 

IMG_2978Our “super-nanny”.

The most difficult place we have been this year for accommodating children was the US for two major conferences. Childcare was US$200 a day plus extra expenses. Neither of the conferences provided childcare services, which I would have been very happy to pay for. Thank goodness for two local moms at the first conference who traveled to the store to buy us some groceries while we were stuck in a food desert! Despite the expense, both conferences have been extremely beneficial for my research. I have established new collaborations, been invited to visit universities, and they were invaluable for me to keep up-to-date with recent research developments in my field. I was also able to support two of my students who attended the conferences.

I’m happy that my RSL so far has been possible with my children. Without the ability for international travel I can’t do my research or attend major conferences. However, next time I will try to be more realistic about my plans with the kids. They are enjoying their time in Southeast Asia but the logistics and financial issues are a lot of pressure.

We are off to the UK in September until December for my fellowship to work with colleagues in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham. Another place with supportive colleagues! I’m looking forward to the next adventure!

IMG_3315The two-year-old helping me re-box some archeological human remains.

IMG_2971.jpgThe 11-year-old hiding in our bedroom for some quiet space to do her school work under the mosquito net.

 

There needs to be a cultural shift to accommodate children at conferences, and here are some ways to achieve this

Why are children at conferences such an important issue?

It is well known that women are disadvantaged at conferences. Women are generally underrepresented at academic meetings, and research has shown that they are less likely to be invited speakers and in other positions of leadership such as chairing sessions, due to their inaccessibility into men’s research networks.

Recently I have seen an increasing number of stories and comments about the problems that caregivers face when going to academic meetings, and some suggestions to create opportunities for caregivers to attend local and international conferences. Clearly accessibility of conferences is an equity issue, with the ‘burden’ of childcare often falling on women. You may find that your parental leave is over (if you are in a country or institution that has maternity leave), however, it remains very difficult for caregivers to leave their infants and children until they are older. Being unable to attend conferences is extremely disadvantageous for women in their academic progression. Conferences are a way to promote your research, to get feedback on your work, to explore the latest advances in the field, and most importantly to engage with colleagues and form relationships that can often lead to collaborations and other research and service opportunities.

 

Although this equity issue is becoming more visible, in reality, we have a long way to go to break down the barriers for caregivers to attend conferences.

 

The best conference attendance with one of my children was a small Wenner-Gren supported workshop on Childhood in the Past held in Galway, Ireland. When I received the invitation to be a participant I told the organisers that I was expecting a baby in three months time and she would be 6 months old when the conference came around. This was no issue and the workshop organisers were very supportive.

 

Logistically and financially conferences are very difficult for caregivers. In my excitement on the invitation to the Wenner-Gren workshop I didn’t quite remember the challenges I had traveling with the first baby on my own. It was a total of 45 hours of travel from New Zealand to Ireland, with about 30 hours being in the air. Unfortunately, Emirates did not seem to give preference to babies being in the seats that bassinets can be attached, and for some reason unbeknown to me the travel agent had not requested that seat, and I was told at check-in that these were not available to me. At least I had a sling that my baby could sleep in on my front. Needless to say I am NEVER flying with Emirates again.

 

The conference was amazingly inclusive of me my baby. I think this worked for two main reasons: it was small and I could look after her while being in the workshop room with her, and the group of women were all very supportive.

 

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Our Wenner-Gren Workshop Attendees, Ireland, October 2014, Photo courtesy Jaime Koshyk

 

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The ‘grandmother’ of the Archaeology of Childhood, Kathryn Kamp, with my daughter at the Wenner-Gren Workshop, Ireland, October 2014, photo courtesy Jaime Koshyk

 

When my youngest daughter was about 12 weeks old I attended the inaugural Early Career Meeting and workshops organised by the New Zealand Royal Society in Wellington, about a 2 hour flight from my hometown. Personally I gained got a lot out of the conference through the interactive workshops and discussions. I must admit that during the keynotes and lectures when the baby was awake I spent a lot of time standing in the corridor peaking through the backdoor of the conference room swaying a windy and unsettled baby. Other than one well-known woman in the New Zealand science community who approached me and gave her form of ‘support’ by simply saying “well done” and walking off, what struck me was that during all the workshops we had on mentoring, research development, and the research journey, with prominent people talking about women in science and academia in general, it was only at the end of the second day that one of the speakers dared to talk about the “Elephant in the Room” and referred to the baby in the audience. This woman talked about her “broken career” with multiple maternity absences and childcare responsibilities and the obstacles that this posed for her, including the fact that she didn’t have a chance to attend many conferences for years.

 

Traveling and attending conferences is hard with children and it is a gender equity issue that isn’t recognised enough. Although inclusive conferences won’t cause an overall cultural shift in sexism within academia, there are certain ways to lessen this significant obstacle for women and caregivers. Here are some points that conference committees and organisers may consider:

 

  • Have your conference on weekdays. This has also recently been proposed by Victoria Bateman an economics historian using the #endweekendconference hashtag. Having a weekday conference means that for the local participants their normal childcare arrangements are available.
  • If you are organising a bigger conference look into offering free or user-pays childcare at or near the venue. Also make sure that the burden of other babysitting duties doesn’t fall on female graduate students. This is an equity issue in itself, with the burden of care and pastoral roles in academia being held by women. Also as a conference goer don’t be afraid to ask about childcare options.
  • As well as offering student awards and grants for conference attendance, offer family care grants to help researchers offset the cost of childcare. An excellent example of this has been instituted by the American Association of Physical Anthropology’s Committee on Diversity Women’s Initiative offering the Family Care Award Committee for Diversity for their 2016 conference.
  • Include in your advertising and programmes that you are a baby and family-friendly conference. This is a very simple, but effective way that you can encourage the attendance of caregivers.
  • Make sure that the accommodation you recommend is family friendly.

A couple of years ago, I was staying with my eldest daughter who was eight years old in Manchester, UK,  at the recommended conference accommodation, which was a Hall of Residence. After staying there for 2 nights I was told by management that I had to leave as they didn’t allow children in the building due to “safety issues”. I could only find alternative accommodation miles away from the University so I couldn’t interact with any of the other conference goers in the mornings or early evenings and ended up paying over 600 pounds for alternative accommodation and transport to and from the conference. I’ve have, however, had very good experiences at other University Halls. For example, Grey College at Durham University was very accommodating of my daughter and I when I stayed there while on a research visit.

  • When organising a conference venue consider their facilities for babies, e.g. are there baby changing facilities or separate areas that can be used for caregivers and babies?