Heed my words, reader, I come to you with a warning! Pirates are a-roving, and they’re sailing our way…
From 20th October until 22nd April, the Museum of Childhood will dedicate itself to its new pirate kings. Our exhibition, A Pirate’s Life for Me¸ is the V&A’s first exploration of fictional pirates and their influence on children’s culture. Working with designers Skellon Studio and Seeing Things, our Children’s Forum and local literacy charity Hackney Pirates, we are creating an immersive, swashbuckling adventure targeted at our youngest visitors, children aged 2-8 years.
As a curator my life is in objects! It was a slow process pulling together a list of them which made the exhibition make sense, fulfil all its messages, appeal to children some of whom will be pre-readers, and yet be nimble enough to be packed and unpacked for the UK tour that will follow. There are around eighty objects in A Pirate’s Life for Me, drawn from the MoC collection, the wider V&A, and illuminated by a few key loans, but the figure started out about twice that size. In my job, I can only drop objects in one context: when cutting down an object list. The angst of that cutting presents a unique opportunity for me now to present some of the objects that didn’t quite make the cut. Here are my top three ‘almosts’:
Magic lanterns were early projectors used for public events and in the home for family entertainment. Mass-produced lanterns and printed slides began to appear in the late-19th century, targeted directly at children. J.M. Barrie’s flamboyant pirate Captain James Hook, the antagonist to boy-hero Peter Pan, is one of fiction’s most enduring characters. This slide, showing a colourful image of the crew of Hook’s ship The Jolly Roger, was sadly rejected on the basis that without projection a small lantern slide is not very relatable for young children.
A set of dice which help children to invent pirate-themed stories (with added superpowers) might seem like a shoo-in for an exhibition about pirates and pirate stories. After much flip-flopping, these were dropped. Earlier in the development process, we wanted to include similar adventure dice in the exhibition’s first section, as an interactive. We imagined it as a ‘pop-o-matic’ dice rolling machine, which you might recognise from games like Frustration, that could be used by visitors as a story aid. Unfortunately, due to changing priorities this feature did not see the light of day.
One of the earliest ways children encountered fictional pirates would have been through song. I thought this could be represented through a remarkable object: an 18th century song sheet printed with the words to three songs, including one called Pirate Crew. Lyrics like those below conjure up some idea of why pirates were popular in the first place:
O’er the wide world of waters we roam ever free,
Sea Kings, and rovers, bold pirates are we,
We own no dominion what matter we sail,
Light hearted and true in the loud roaring gale
The song sheet went the way of the lantern slides, and was ultimately dropped because of its probable lack of visual appeal to young visitors. We had to find another way to bring music into the exhibition and decided it would be best to involve our young pirates from Globe Primary School. So, we made them sing! Come October, if you are on a visit to the MoC and you hear strains of spooky sea shanties don’t fear, you haven’t gone down to Davy Jones’ locker. It is just the result of one of the many fruitful collaborations with the Children’s Forum we have enjoyed throughout this exhibition’s development.