Representing 100 years of childhood
At the rate of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, we have created 90 percent of the data we have in just the past two years. And while 10 percent sounds small in comparison, working with the data of the past presents the same challenges as any Big Data project. You have to consider what to include and what to exclude to come up with the questions, correlations, and contexts that relate to your concerns. They are key to the representation of your data, whether in the form of a report, an inforgraphic, or a physical exhibition.
Some of those essential components were missing in the Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s described as “the first large-scale overview of the modernist preoccupation with children and childhood as a paradigm for progressive design thinking. The exhibition will bring together areas underrepresented in design history and often considered separately, including school architecture, clothing, playgrounds, toys and games, children’s hospitals and safety equipment, nurseries, furniture, and books.”
Granted, it is impossible to show everything. Yet, I question the omission of an American Girl Doll. (The company that produced it was sold to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million). The line was introduced in 1986 and was considered a significant departure from the Barbie style that had dominated the doll market at the time. These dolls represented girls rather than full-figured adults and offered some historical insight with their accompanying books. When they first came out, the $100 dolls also raised questions about how much parents are expected to spend on toys, something worth bringing up in relation to consumerism.
Of course, people get a nostalgic kick out of seeing the toys and furniture they associate with their own childhoods, like classic wooden and Lego blocks, an Erector set, an Etch-a-Sketch, a Rubik’s cube, a Slinky, and a Barbie house. Still, the toys should have offered more than a trip down memory lane. While the exhibit points to the rather obvious cause for the proliferation of toys associated with the space age, it does not explore how other toys were also a product of their times.
Aside from what different types of toys represent, there is the evolution within toy lines to consider. For example, Lincoln Logs also started incorporating plastic and premade windows into its sets. Tinker Toys evolved from simple wooden forms to plastic ones that included specialized pieces and set in pastel colors that were marketed to girls. These modifications raise questions about materials, imaginative play, and gender that should be considered in such an exhibit.
Without context and explanations, you just have random items that do not signify meaning. As Jean Aggasiz said, “Facts are stupid things until brought in connection with some general law.” The same holds true for data, no matter how big.