Feature

Exhibit of the week: Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900–2000

MoMA's new show reminds us that the idea of childhood has been around a relatively short time.

Museum of Modern Art, New YorkThrough Nov. 5

The big show of the summer at MoMA is “not just kids’ stuff,” said Steven Heller in TheAtlantic.com. Even as it “throws open the playroom doors” to 100 years of design for children, “Century of the Child” reminds us that the idea of childhood has been around a relatively short time and yet has already gone through some dramatic changes. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did Western society truly begin to regard children not just as cheap labor but as fledgling citizens whose creative and intellectual potential required fostering. Among the 500 objects that the museum has assembled, visitors will encounter various colorful teaching materials, including some commissioned by educational pioneer Maria Montessori. But there are militaristic games as well, and such recent hot commodities as Nintendo’s Game Boy. Clearly, the past century’s ideas of childhood were “shaped by the same forces that shaped the rest of society: industrialization, urbanization, and consumerism.”

The show opens on a fun note, said Janelle Zara in ArtInfo.com. A “preposterously large” table set, created by Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik in 1972, invites grown-up visitors to assume a child’s-eye view of the world. From there, the mood shifts from lighthearted to dystopian and back again. Gerrit Rietveld’s colorful De Stijl children’s wheelbarrow, from 1923, and the folklore-inspired puppets of dadaist Sophie Taeuber-Arp offer two examples of how various artistic movements “applied their avant-garde visions to playthings.” Between the world wars, toys sometimes became propaganda tools, as with a German board game that was shaped like a swastika. After World War II, the emergence of such “enduring classics” as the Etch-A-Sketch and Lego building blocks also marked a new recognition of kids as autonomous spenders.

But with new power came a new neediness, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. In this “rich and thought-provoking” show, “the contradictions of contemporary childhood come together most resonantly” in a display of postmodern props from the late-1980s television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. As the title character, actor Paul Reubens was “the infantilized consumer par excellence,” a man-boy who lived in a world where all his fantasies could come true, and yet he was “constantly buffeted by his own desires and frustrations.” That era’s “needy child” is still with us, as is a new figure: “the vulnerable, endangered child.” Fittingly, the show closes “on a rueful note,” with a section on contemporary playgrounds and the design limitations being placed on them in an age when safety concerns dominate. Surely it was more fun to create products for children in 1901.

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