Children’s identity and their home town
Elisabeth Oxelhöjd, arts and recreation coordinator in Timrå, went to Indianapolis and the conference Bringing the World to Children and Families, where she learned more about how children’s museums in other countries link the home community to children’s identity building. She brings her new findings back to Timrå, a community that has long been characterised by hockey and industry.
Children’s museums is a concept that exists in many parts of the world. The conference Bringing the World to Children and Families was organised by the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and attracted participants from some 20 countries, most of which already have children’s museums or advanced plans for building one.
The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis is the largest one in the USA, with 400 full-time staff and 1,500 volunteers. On premises corresponding to more than six football fields (44,000 sq m) the museum has indoor exhibitions laid out on four floors – the size is amazing! The museum is funded by ticket revenue and business partnerships, so the policy is to give visitors what they want, and preferably exceed their expectations, with the result that the museum is a mixture of fairground, educational programmes and a share of moral lecturing. All in bright colours and dazzling interiors.
Motivational environments that encourage play
Article 31 in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child describes children’s right to play. (Article 31. Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and recreational activities.) The USA and Somalia are the only two nations in the world that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Perhaps this is why the intrinsic value of play is not entirely obvious and generally accepted. Play is essential to children’s development and a key to many of the skills children need in order to understand and make themselves understood when interacting with themselves and others. Therefore, children’s museums, with their focus on learning through play, have a key role as opinion-makers and children’s rights advocates. We had the pleasure of meeting a guy, Spencer Hahn, who suffered a stroke at birth. It was predicted that he would never learn to walk, talk or play with other children.
Spencer Hahn with Dinosaur Rex, the Museum mascot.
But life took a different turn entirely, when mother and son, together with a therapist, began working on Spencer’s motory skills at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. Spencer loved the place, his incentive rocketed, the exercises showed results, and when we met Spencer he was dancing with Rex, the Museum mascot. A story with a happy ending, and there are probably a myriad of similar ones from different activities focusing on children and play.In Sweden, children are exposed to educational and play environments more or less from birth until their upper teens, through open preschool, after-school centres, recreation centres. These are often funded by local government and should be available to everyone in their target group (although a great deal probably remains to be done here). Regardless of what solution we choose – be it a spectacular playground or a recreation centre on school premises –both activities emphasise the importance of environments that encourage play as a significant factor in children’s development and identity building.
Karima Grant, executive director of ImagiNation Afrika, a children’s museum in Senegal at the very tip of the Cape Verde peninsula, seen here with Wairimu Muniu of the Educational Park Children’s Museum in Nairobi.
Karima Grant is the executive director of ImagiNation Afrika, a children’s museum in Senegal on the very tip of the Cape Verde peninsula. With her radiant enthusiasm that seemed to bounce off the walls of the mighty and rather awe-inspiring conference hall, she challenged and overturned the perspectives in “bringing the world to children”. Africa is often described in terms of poverty, hunger catastrophes, conflicts, poor educational standards and a huge dependence on foreign aid. Children pick up this image and incorporate it with their identity, Karima Grant explained, and added that although many African nations face enormous challenges, there is also another truth about Africa, which is that it consists of 60 unique countries, most of which are advancing rapidly, but that image is not as prominent.
Norms – comfortable and limiting
I imagine that it’s the same everywhere: positive and negative expectations and preconceptions exist in any system, be it the family, school, the housing area, the local community, or the country we live in. We ascribe certain characteristics and attributes to ourselves and our neighbours, based on our notions of what a person living in the neighbourhood is expected to be like. We create a distance to people who attend other schools, live in other neighbourhoods, other countries, and we ascribe to them attributes and characteristics that are different to our own. With increasing globalisation, through information technology and growing migration, these differences become increasingly conspicuous.
Hampus Petersson of the Department of Sociology at Lund University writes in Personlig identitet och social kategorisering – Identitet i en småstad (“Personal Identity and Social Categorisation – Identity in a Small Town”) that newcomers were regarded as outsiders in the sense that they were considered to break against established norms and values. They demonstrated how the established citizens had formed a group identity based on their own norms and values, which made them feel superior to the newcomers. The newcomers, in turn, built an identity that defined them as being inferior to the established group. Sorting and categorising fills a purpose, making the world coherent and safely predictable. A sense of proficiency in the relevant codes and customs makes life a little easier to handle. Boundaries are drawn up: who belongs, who doesn’t belong? It becomes clear who is “us”, and who is “them”. Norms serve as tacit rules for what is desirable and confers status is a certain context, but limit liberty in other contexts, at individual, organisational or social level.
Changing the characteristics of an environment
Small towns where the influx of newcomers has been minimal, and where the collective identity is based on things the inhabitants are proud of – in Timrå’s case the paper mill and the hockey team – change when people with other cultural backgrounds and other identity markers begin to grow more visible in the community. Here, the local norms and values tend to block out the “new” community in which they live, a community where the common identity can no longer be built on the closed mill or a hockey team in decline. Perhaps the transition is more distinct in smaller communities, where a defined local identity was strong, a form of monoculture?
In the transitional society, old and new inhabitants are forced to negotiate with each other in order to coexist. What community image emerges? Is there room for more than one image also in smaller communities? What are the new values that many can identify with and feel proud of in their community? New generations grow up in this environment, they attend the same schools, live in the same houses, the children and teens share many of the cultural references, and thereby build a partly common identity.
Back to Cape Verde and ImagiNation Afrika, where Karima Grant and her colleagues have a clear vision of the future. They “believe in a world of African children changemakers solving the problems of development, and imagine Africa of 2025 powerfully led by young people who can critically think and creatively problem solve”. All their activities are based on their fundamental principles: accessibility, focus on the child, and think globally – act locally. This vision is implemented in an extensive activity programme, ranging from infants learning about themselves, to leadership programmes for young girls and young adults.
Innovation hampered by prejudice
According to Vinnova (Sweden’s innovation agency) innovative ability is a key factor behind the competitive power and growth of organisations, but they also stress that innovation is hampered by prejudice and traditional preconceptions. Increased awareness of existing norms can therefore be essential to enhancing the innovative potential of individuals and organisations. This is something Karima Grant and her colleagues already seem to have realised, and they are focusing hard on changing the community’s image, and thereby influencing the self-perception of the children they meet. We identify ourselves with the prevailing norms in our immediate surroundings and the images that are fed to us, whether we live in Cape Verde, Timrå, or some other community.
So – you work with culture in Timrå? You’re with the local ice hockey team? Someone actually asked me that, with a twinkle in their eye. And that’s how it is, Timrå is a small industrial town, where ice hockey and fishing are dear to its inhabitants. The arts and spaces for culture have not enjoyed the same prominence (even if there are some fantastic cultural workers and institutions here too).
The generation whose roots were planted in the paper mill and ice hockey team is now joined by people who grew up in a totally different environment and have a completely different view of what is characteristic of Timrå and what being a true Timrå resident entails. And in that very gap, something is about to happen, an exciting shift. In order to cater for this change, we are adapting our activities. Among other things, the youth centre is moving to larger premises, with access to a stage and a dance studio. In connection with the move, the centre will change into an Activity Centre for further activities and more age groups. People from every corner of the world are living here, with widely different experiences and perspectives, but with the same postal code. The Activity Centre will provide spaces and contexts for reflection on what differentiates us, what we have in common, and what unites us.