Representation and Rights of Children in Care: An Online Exhibition

During a six week period at the start 2022, a small group of volunteers with either personal or professional experience of the care sector, and working with the ARCH project’s Research Archivist, created an online exhibition inspired by source material in the Aberlour Child Care Trust archive. This blog post will discuss the overall process, technology used, challenges and outcomes.

The ARCH Project

The Archiving Residential Children’s Homes (ARCH) project is currently being undertaken by researchers at the universities of Stirling and Osnabrück. It aims to better understand what shared experiences and memories those who live, or have lived, in residential childcare want to access, when they want to access them, and the role these memories play in their understanding of themselves and their history. More information about the wider ARCH project can be found here: The ARCH Project | Archiving Residential Children’s Homes (stir.ac.uk)

The Archive

During the first phase of the project, ARCH researchers in both countries are using existing residential care home archives, to explore how everyday and group experiences were captured historically and to understand how identity and childhood were constructed in the care context.

The Stirling team have been examining the archives of the Aberlour Child Care Trust, now housed at Stirling University. The collection contains material relating to the Aberlour Orphanage, founded in 1895, and also smaller group homes run by the Trust from the 1960s onwards. Included is a series of magazines spanning almost 100 years which give a unique, if fairly curated, insight into day-to-day life in both the Orphanage and latterly the group homes.

It was these magazines that provided the inspiration for the online exhibition. Participants were asked to look at a small selection from the period 1920-1980 (the time period of interest to the ARCH project) and decide on areas of interest that they would like to explore further and present to an audience.

The Process

The project was conducted entirely remotely with the weekly online sessions to discuss progress and agree on tasks. As time was short, there had to be a fairly strict timetable to keep it on track:

· Week 1: Introductions; discussions on motivations and what each participant hoped to gain from taking part; an overview of the magazines, their content, purpose and format.

· Week 2: Discussion of the source material and initial thoughts on areas of interest. Participants were given some guidance on what to consider when putting together an online exhibition, including this short ten-minute video put together by the Scottish Council on Archives:

· Weeks 3 & 4: Further discussions on topics; final narrative agreed; participants introduced to and given short tutorial on using Microsoft Sway.

· Weeks 5 & 6: Writing text and populating the Sway.

It was important that this was a participant led exhibition, that they would pick out the themes and messages and have control over the content. The role of the Research Archivist was to facilitate the meetings and discussions and to collate and record ideas.

The Technology

Source material was shared via Google Docs due to its ability to control access, sharing, downloading and printing permissions. The only requirement for the volunteers beyond their connection to the care sector was to have a google account.

After careful consideration of several different online exhibition software, it was decided to use Microsoft Sway for the following reasons:

· It allows for collaboration, all those with access can work on it simultaneously or independently.

· It’s very easy to use which was important given the time scale. The participants did not need prior knowledge and there were plenty of short tutorials available on YouTube.

· It can be populated with standard format images, sound files, video files. Again, given the timescale it was not possible to create archival quality images.

· It is possible to create a unique visual experience given the variety of customisation options.

· It can be embedded easily into a WordPress site which was an essential requirement.

Once complete the Sway could be shared with other ARCH team members to allow for continued maintenance and monitoring of the feedback form which was added using Microsoft Forms.

The Challenges

The project worked well, and the resulting exhibition has received positive feedback. It was not, however, without its challenges.

It had initially been planned to run the project over a longer time period and with in-person discussions, however, uncertainty over the Omicron variant at the start of the year and setbacks with volunteer recruitment meant the start was delayed until February. However, this did allow for more time to prepare for the possibility of an online project. In practice the shorter time period, although perhaps not allowing for more in-depth research, proved to be a manageable commitment for the volunteers who, despite having work, study and family responsibilities, were able to stay motivated and enthusiastic throughout the project.

The entirely online nature of the project meant that all source material had to be digitised prior to the start of the project, and in order to avoid overwhelming the participants, only a limited selection from the time period in question was shared in the first instance. If the participants had additional questions about content e.g., whether something was typical or if they wanted further examples of something specific, then the Research Archivist would refer to the collection on their behalf, digitise any relevant material and share.

As with all volunteer projects, participants had other, more important, commitments and it was important they all felt able to contribute what they wanted to and within the time they had available. In this respect the digital images and decision to use Microsoft Sway allowed them to participate at times that were most convenient for them.

The Outcome

After discussing a number of different themes, the participants were drawn to highlighting how the representation of children in care and their rights at the time of the magazines compared to children in care today. They explored this through various magazine content including the use of language, the relationships the children had with their peers as referenced in the magazines, and memories as recorded in printed extracts of their letters. The final exhibition can be seen here: Online Exhibition | Archiving Residential Children’s Homes (stir.ac.uk)

Most issues of the Aberlour magazines include printed extracts from letters written by children who had since moved away from the Orphanage and participants found these particularly thought-provoking. While some extracts were indeed used, many, while interesting, were not relevant for the purposes of the exhibition. Using the free online Knightlab StoryMap tool, an additional resource “Aberlour Around The World” was created to display quotes from letters sent back to the Orphanage from destinations all over the globe.

Finally, quotes from the letters collated during the project were also inserted into the Aberlour timeline (also created with a free Knightlab tool) as a way of adding children’s voices to the history of the Orphanage.

Jenny Duffy, ARCH Project Archivist

Images credited to ACCT/Stirling University Archives

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