Mary Kempson is a woman from west London who donated hundreds of things to the Museum in the 1980s and 90s. Her original gift, a group of dolls, was quickly followed by teddies, baby clothes, board games, birthday cards, school books, holiday souvenirs, and much more. A new installation at the Museum brings her objects together with photographs and interview quotes – putting faces and voices to this collection of things.Mary’s collection of everyday childhood objects came from her own childhood, but also the early life of her parents, and her son Stephen. In recent years, Stephen has added to the collection by passing on more of his treasured childhood belongings.
I was very lucky to come across a few ‘Kempson objects’ in the Museum stores. In the Museum, donations from one person are not kept together, but instead divided according to type and material. All our train sets, for example, are kept together no matter who donated them. So the title ‘Recollection’ can describe my act of bringing the Kempson things together again, reuniting them from every store in the Museum.
As I did this, I started to get a picture of different generations of family life. All collecting is autobiographical, and Mary’s collection is particularly so. As a group, the objects produce a vibrant life story. Mary was born just before the outbreak of WWII, and there are obvious reminders of this, such as her ID card. Sewing kits and tea sets remind us how girls were expected to behave in the 1940s. But the story became richer when I was able to speak to Mary and Stephen.
I interviewed mother and son together last autumn to learn more about how the objects fitted together, and how they related to people and places in their lives. Hearing Mary’s account added emotional significance to artefacts by linking objects to people and events. Toys were hard to buy in the 1940s so Mary’s father made her doll’s house furniture, which has since become more important than any shop-bought bits.
In Mary’s telling, fantasy and imagination are just as valid as exterior events. In fact, I would argue they are more important for our understanding of childhood. A Scottie dog brooch was a material trace of a loyal imaginary dog she had when the family were first evacuated out of London. As a lonely little girl, Dog gave her company as they ‘walked up and down the road’.
It was also interesting to put the family story in a wider context. We commonly think that Britain was transformed in the twenty years between Mary’s birth and Stephen’s in 1957. The toys of Stephen’s childhood are mass-produced household names like Lego and Meccano. There’s much more plastic and the colours are brighter. Massive social changes had taken place, but objects can remind us of the continuities. The baby blankets used to wrap each generation are indistinguishable, and some things, like a pencil box, were passed down from mother to son. These raffia coasters were made in kindergarten 20 years apart; their striking similarity forced me to draw back from the personal story and look at this family as part of a culture, in which small things can disclose forms of thought that persist over generations.
The interview with Stephen and Mary reminded me that history’s grand narratives and nostalgia about the past are always complicated by the individual stories. Mary’s divorce in the early 1960s made their lives materially difficult. They were poor and widespread bigoted attitudes made it nearly impossible to find somewhere to live: ‘back then places still had signs in the window saying No blacks, No Irish, No children’. But Mary was resilient, determined and imaginative. She found a flat-share with another single mother, went to night school and became financially independent.
The word ‘recollection’ describes the difficult process of thinking about and reconstructing the past. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan made the distinction between reminiscence, when we are lost in the emotions and feelings of the past, and recollection, which actively finds meaning in past events and relates them to the present and future. Recollection is ‘less a matter of remembering than of rewriting history’ (Lacan, Seminar 1, 14). It has been my intention throughout this project to rewrite the history of these objects; to create a narrative that is complicated by memory and individual experience, in which each single object contributes to a collage of associations.
Including speech and active recollection in the museum challenges us to rethink our own assumptions about what objects, and collections in general, can tell us.
Recollection is part of an exhibition called A Treasured Collection, which is on display in the Front Room Gallery at the V&A Museum of Childhood until September 2013. More info here.