Where War Is Child’s Play: War Games at London’s Museum of Childhood

toy soldiersToy Soldier Set, Germany, c.1936, pieces by O & M Hausser and A. G. Lineol. Image via the V&A.

In line with this week’s informal theme of children, guns, and play, the Museum of Childhood in London opened War Games, a new exhibition that explores the material culture of war-themed toys and children’s ephemera.

According to The Guardian’s Mark Brown:

Co-curator Ieuan Hopkins admits they were not short of potential exhibits. “The first thing we did was go through the museum’s collections and the amount of material we had relating to war was incredible, it was quite a surprise. War has always been a part of children’s lives.”

Brown also mentions the exhibitions’ look at war propaganda aimed at children — how toys are so easily co-opted as political tools. It reminded me of a section in last summer’s Century of the Child exhibition at MoMA that featured a similar theme.

I think there’s something particularly discomfiting about the combination of childhood innocence and violent or racist propaganda. Children aren’t usually equipped with the critical thinking skills to know when an image or political message is manipulative. And it makes one question one’s own assumptions and beliefs. If they were stacked between “Clue” and “Monopoly”, would I have been an eager player of the “Get Those Japs” darts in War Games or the Nazi-themed “SAKAMPF” board game from Century of the Child?

Text on the War Games website acknowledges:

War play is controversial. It is actively discouraged by many parents and teachers, as it is thought to encourage aggression. But aggressive play, a type of active play, is not the same as real aggression, in which a child intends to harm.

Research questioning whether war play and aggression are linked is inconclusive. Fears that they are may come from personal beliefs and assumptions influenced by the pacifist and feminist movements of the last fifty years. War play can also bring benefits. It can help children to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And it can help them to explore their feelings and understanding of an often violent adult world.

Reminds me of yesterday’s post on prop oriented make-believe. There’s even a section of the exhibition displaying toy guns improvised out of sticks by the curator’s own son. Sound familiar?

War Games is at the Museum of Childhood in London from May 25 through March 9, 2014.

Thanks to @cat_rossi for the tip!

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3 thoughts on “Where War Is Child’s Play: War Games at London’s Museum of Childhood

  1. […] been writing a fair number of posts lately on guns and children and war toys. I think I’m so fascinated by this because objects created for children can reveal underlying […]

  2. […] There seems to be another narrative embedded here. One in which the tools we use for play as children end up profoundly shaping our lives as adults. It’s the same sort of question involved in asking whether your kid should be able to play violent video games or use an adult’s iPad. It’s a question I think I’ve also been circling with posts about Keystone’s children’s rifles the V&A’s exhibition on war toys. […]

  3. WW2 propaganda games hardly exist

    Since 1993 I’m an avid collector and researcher of WW2 games and puzzles. Several items shown in the exhibition War Games are loans from me, like the American dart board ‘Get those Japs in their Pants’. My collection includes over 1800 original games and puzzles from 24 countries involved in WW2. In my database I also record images and information of games from other collectors and institutes. In total I know more than 2500 WW2 games and puzzles. It will surprise you that only less than 20 of these items were produced for governments to be used as propaganda. All other games and puzzles were produced and sold as commercial products by large and small companies and individuals. So please avoid conclusions that WW2 games and puzzles were developed and designed to influence children with war propaganda. The makers simply took advantage of the huge propaganda campaigns of their government to create games and puzzles (and toys) that would be popular by the public, with the object to make more money.

    Gejus van Diggele
    The Netherlands

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