A Review of Child’s Play

Published on 29 May 2017

by Paul Collins

Paul Collins shares with us some of his reflections on seeing the exhibition Child’s Play recently at the Foundling Museum. Child’s Play, which was open from February to April this year, brought together an exhibition of photographs, a symposium and a book by artist Mark Neville. It aimed to generate debate around the complex nature of children’s play and to advocate for improved provision for this universal right, recognised by the UN, at a time when almost 13 million children have been displaced as a result of armed conflict, and traditional public space is being privatised: 

The Foundling Museum, like its East End equivalent the Geffrye, is a regular place of quite reflection for me. It was patronised by Handel and Dickens and has a collection of wonderful childhood-related paintings and, on the day of my visit, a string instrumentalist and vocalist in action. The painting that has always struck me is “Suffer the Little Children…” Today on the way up I saw they also have on the stairwell Benjamin West’s “Christ Presenting a Little Child”.

Neville’s exhibition is really about the spiritual power of the lens and photography- something which only some of Turner’s work captures with a brush and light. In an exhibition some years ago at the Serpentine, a Lithuanian photographer who escaped to New York said: “Every day I go out (in New York!) looking for beautiful souls.” His poems were full of rich symbolism: trees and roots – the latter of course being what deprived children lack.

It is an interesting concept in public policy terms: the right to space as a forgotten or neglected one. And the right to play is quiet inalienable. A UK TV programme takes a secret camera into childs’ play (with parents watching in amazement – maybe like Mary at Christ’s wisdom when she finally caught up with him at the Temple). As one picture in the exhibit indicates, outsider intrusion is not always welcome. Even our Lord angrily snapped: “did (they) not know (he) had to be about his Father’s business?” And so, one picture from a primary school in my area notes how children under the right conditions, can instantly access an internal desire to play and perform.

But sadly, these are privileged play situations and a portion of the show is about what is called “Oppressed space”: seen in Afghanistan especially, but also within Canadian aboriginal families – the disgrace of the so-called civilised world. We had the head of Church of England Canada at St Paul’s recently who referred to the fact that Canada is now in the process of atonement. (The show calls this “cultural genocide”). Canada shares that with Australia where the so-called missionaries just did not get it when it came to aspects of Aboriginal spirituality such as ancestry and “dreaming”. But as I told the Bishop at St Paul’s door, it did not have to be like that and in New Zealand it was not. At St Paul’s in Wellington, I found the Lord’s Prayer translated from Maori – in which language it was firmly rooted in indigenous spirituality and seemed quite Hebraic to me in many ways. The Vicar there emailed me a copy.

And so it went on: deaf children’s schools in Ukraine, with a pertinent reminder that this was in fact a Soviet tradition. There it continues: a Russian student of mine did a paper on Russia’s management of (of course the “right”) refugees from Ukraine. But it is not all so straight forward of course. The East-West clash of cultures is ironically highlighted in the exhibition by pictures of Christmas in Helmand. I was struck by the way the cute Afghan girls pose for the camera as if for a magazine.

Culture is not always “overseas”: observe Scottish girl Highland Dancers in Corby - talented Scots then had to emigrate for work in the steel industry. It was the same with the Irish in Pittsburgh. And what of the Welsh I thought (being half myself)? Abandoned Chapels in London - well documented by Huw Edwards - but a still living language thanks to Bishop Morgan who translated the Bible into Welsh for Elizabeth I to be sure no Roman Catholic 'nonsense' remained across the border.

Depression with its various causes underpins much of the urban play ventures: abandoned supermarket trollies used in play; kids without access to clean drinking water. But then alongside that the joy which would seem odd: a daughter-father dancing on St Valentine’s Day in Pittsburgh; Carnival Queens in Corby; and the regular stuff kids (and parents if they have them) recall: adventure playgrounds; Halloween.

So no wonder Christ said: “Suffer the Little Children to Come to Me”. Sadly conditions for children to play in has become a forgotten right and one the artist Mark Neville is now lobbying for with this show, its books and meetings.