The collection tells us much about the education of children during the Victorian period; what was seen as suitable for children to study and access for entertainment. Much of the collection is dominated by religious texts which were designed to teach children how to behave. This was reflective of what was generally available for children at this time. However, there are games and texts that tell a different story of education for children, ideas that are reflected in other archive collections from the Victorian period.
The Young Naturalist is a game which was produced in 1860 and introduces children to subjects about the natural world. It is a beautifully illustrated card game with a set of 5 subject cards: ‘Entomology’ ( study of butterflies); ‘Ornithology’ (study of birds); ‘Ichthyology'(study of fish); ‘Conchology’ (study of shells); ‘Zoology’ (study of animals). The box also includes a large set of picture cards with coloured illustrations relating to these subjects and a set of small picture cards printed with illustrations that relate to the main subject categories. These include subjects like Malacology (study of molluscs including snails and octopus), Geology and Mineralogy as well as Meteorology, Astronomy and even Phrenology (the study of the brain by measuring parts of the skull).
It is interesting that a game was seen as a good way to introduce science to children and that there are girls and women depicted in illustrations of scientific study. Natural science was obviously an area of study that was regarded as suitable for children and indeed for women at this time.
In William J. Harrison’s photograph of Icknield Science Laboratory we see girls and boys engaged in science and experiments. As well as being co-founder of the Warwickshire Photographic Survey with Benjamin Stone in 1890, Harrison was also Science Demonstrator for the City of Birmingham in 1880 and advocated “observational learning” as the most effective approach to teaching. He promoted field trips and participatory experiments in laboratories to bring children “face to face with nature”, declaring that traditional rote learning “reduced children to the state of machines, not thinking individuals”.Debates about what is suitable material for young minds has stimulated debate for a long time and, just a few months ahead of a general election, continues to do so!
All of these archives will be available to see at our upcoming, free Stones & Bones Exhibition in The Gallery on Floor 3 from February 13th, running until 17th May. This is a partnership exhibition with the Lapworth Museum of Geology and will feature both archival documents and exciting geological artefacts such as a dinosaur bone, a cast of the ediacaran fossil and minerals collected by William Murdoch.