Sunday, September 9, 2012

It’s the “Century of the Child” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art

Exhibition Review by Maggie Hames
In 1900, Ellen Key’s book Century of the Child predicted that the 20th century would see dramatic (and welcome) changes in the life of children. Progressive thought regarding children’s rights, development, and well-being refocused society in the new century. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has taken Key’s work as a jumping-off point for an extraordinary exhibition that is well worth your time and attention.

Ladislav Sutnar (American, born Bohemia [now Czech Republic].
1897–1976). Build the Town building blocks. 1940–43.
Painted wood, thirty pieces of various dimensions, largest
smokestack: 7 3/8 x 2 (18.7 x 5.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art,
New York. Gift of Ctislav Sutnar and Radoslav Sutnar.
Century of the Child: Growing By Design, 1900-2000 is MoMA’s ambitious survey of 20th century design for children with (by their own description) “children and childhood as a paradigm for progressive design thinking.” The exhibition brings together a wide and satisfying range of design for children including school architecture, clothing, playgrounds, toys and games, children’s hospitals and safety equipment, nurseries, furniture, and books. Add to that a thought-provoking and fun collection of films and videos projected throughout the space, such as the 1947 Czech film, Revolt of the Toys.

Teaching materials commissioned
by Maria Montessori. 1920s.
Wood, dimensions vary.
Manufactured by Baroni e Marangon,
Gonzaga, Italy (est. 1911).
Collection of Maurizio Marzadori , Bologna.
Every grown-up will find artifacts of their own childhood here as well as the “greatest hits” of educational ideas. I was genuinely moved by the collection of teaching materials commissioned by Maria Montessori from the 1920s. And if you follow this site, you know I’m a big fan of Disney concept artist Mary Blair. Several of her concept pieces for Disneyland’s ride, “It’s A Small World” were on display, beautiful collages that made my heart soar. I was especially excited to see a duplicate of my big sister’s Barbie Dream House on display. And I can’t deny my joy at seeing props from the television show, Peewee’s Playhouse.

Unknown Italian designer.
Gioco delle 3 oche (Game of the 3 geese).
c. 1944. 12 ½ x 22 ½” (31.8 x 57.2 cm).
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, 
Miami Beach, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

This is a delightful, often whimsical show, but it has its darker moments as well. You’ll cringe at the Nazi and Fascist toys and games; and the Communist imagery of children may give you a chill. It’s a thorough look at a century that saw perhaps more than its share of conflict; whose children have taken the reins of power even as we cherry-pick the best of the past for our own 21st century kids.

But is this show for kids? Honestly, it’s for reasonably well-behaved kids; there were several at the exhibit when I was there. And while this is not a hands-on exhibit, there is a very nice pay-off for kid’s good behavior: the inter-active exhibit, Shadow Monsters invites kids (and adults, for that matter) to gesture, dance, gesticulate, and plain old jump around in front of a clever projection device that combines the user’s shadow with computer-generated puppetry and sound effects. For example, the user’s hand really can become a silhouette of a bird’s beak with feathers and spiky plumage as real bird sounds are heard. You can get an idea of Shadow Monsters from this amateur video on YouTube:

This show runs until November 5, 2012. Worth noting, the regular adult admission to MoMA is $25 with children under 16 admitted for free. There are various discounts available as you can see at their site, but you may want to go on a Friday when admission after 4 pm is free for everyone. Personally, I’m a member. Even if you only go a few times a year, it’s a good deal.

Seen at the top of this story: Minka Podhájská (Czechoslovak, born Moravia [now Czech Republic], 1881–1963). Series of Personifications of Childhood Misdeeds. 1930. Painted wood, dimensions vary, largest: 5 1/8″(13 cm) tall. Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague.

All artwork courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, used by permission. Not for reproduction or reuse.


  1. This post is so interesting! I love anything vintage!

  2. You'd love this show. There's a wide range of stuff from every decade of the century.