Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Exhibition in the Strauhof – Are children angels or little beasts?

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In the exhibition “Enfants Terribles” the Zurich Strauhof Museum shows how differently adults imagine childhood. The show is educational – and a bit cerebral.

What do Struwwelpeter, Pinocchio and Barbie have in common? They are all characters that adults created for children – and that are based on adults’ ideas of childhood. This is exactly what the current exhibition at the Strauhof Museum in Zurich is about.

A walk through the exhibition shows that the completely contradictory childhood images were primarily projections by adults. And so the pictures tell less about the children than about the adults.

The invention of childhood

The starting point is the Enlightenment period in the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, the idea became established that there was such a thing as childhood, i.e. a world that was fundamentally different from that of adults. Before, children were, to put it bluntly, considered “little adults”.

This changed, for example, with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed in children – in a sometimes transfigured way – to recognize beings who lived in a primal state of unity with nature.


The Strauhof Museum shows childhood images primarily as projections of adults.

Zeljko Gataric

At the same time, the contrary idea emerged that children were instinctual creatures whose wildness had to be tamed through education.

The exhibition shows how these different childhood images were reflected in scientific texts, children’s books, illustrations, films and toys.

Between pink idyll and devilish violence

There are ideal Barbie worlds to admire that idealize the child. Or Struwwelpeter, who represents a danger to civilized civil society due to his untamed nature and his refusal to cut his hair and fingernails.

The focus of the exhibition is on the anarchic or even evil child. This idea proved to be particularly fruitful in terms of cultural history. For example, the cheeky snot-nosed Pippi Longstocking, whose activities bring total chaos into the well-ordered middle class.

The bad child in fairy tales

Pinocchio can also be found, the doll who lies and grows a long nose as punishment – and as a deterrent for all imitators. Or you can see excerpts from horror films like “The Omen” from the 1970s, where the child becomes the ultimate tool of evil.

And today?

The exhibition encourages us to reflect on our current ideas. Are we further along than our ancestors if we believe, for example with Herbert Grönemeyer, that all we have to do is let the “children take power” and then everything will be fine?

Or is it the other way around: Do we adults still have far too little trust in children when we expose them to the pressure of modern society to perform at an early age, in the opinion that we have to prepare our offspring for the future as early as possible?

The exhibition presents an enormous amount of material and food for thought. There is so much information that you sometimes feel a little lost. In addition, the many texts that are available to read are often in scientific language, which poses an additional challenge for visitors.

Overall, however, a positive impression remains: the exhibition is extremely diverse with its showcases, video installations, audio stations and installations designed with great attention to detail. And extremely educational.

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