Child’s Play at The Foundling Museum

Exhibition: Child’s Play – Mark Neville at The Foundling Museum
Date: Friday 28 April 2017 @ 4:00pm
Entrance: £7.50  (Student Concession inc gift aid)

I saw the advert for this exhibition in the British Journal of Photography (Issue 7858 April 2017 edition) and really wanted to see it but with so many other things in my diary I nearly missed it!  I managed to re-arrange my diary and freed up an hour, which was thankfully enough.

The reason I was drawn to this particular exhibition was the documentary aspect of the exhibition rather than the technical side of photography.  I had a slightly unconventional childhood, living in a rural location, so I was curious to see what childhood was like in other countries and cultures but also for different generations.

Note: I wanted to write this initial section before reading anything about the exhibition as I wanted to capture my thoughts and feelings about it without any influence from the photographer or other commentators.

The exhibition was spread across 3 rooms on 2 floors together with a lobby/foyer area.   I thought the cost to image ratio was high in comparison to other exhibitions I had been to.  Most of the photos were recent (2003 onwards) but I was surprised that in some respects childhood, as portrayed in the exhibition, was not that much different to that which I remembered in the 1970s.  It was surprising but also in some ways comforting, as I look back at my childhood with fond memories.  I appreciate not everyone is in that position.

There were a number of black & white images which fooled me into thinking they were more dated than they actually were.    I found myself searching for clues in the images to identify when they were taken; clothing, surroundings and the items being played with. This made me consider whether Child’s Play in some respects was timeless.  This also played out when watching the two videos in the exhibition foyer, where sports day past and more present had been filmed and now shown side by side for comparison. Certainly the sack race was an enjoyable comparator.

A lot of the children in the photos were not smiling and looking straight in to the camera. I found this interesting for two reasons; 1) in my mind ‘running free and laughing’ is my archetypal visualisation of ‘childhood’ but this was not being portrayed in the exhibition, although there was very little indication that childhood was a negative thing in general and 2) were the children asked not to smile and perform for the camera by the photographer?  Maybe the write-ups and review will answer with this.

As mentioned above, I had not read any reviews prior to attending the exhibition and on my first pass through the exhibition I disregarded the image narratives so I could get a feel of the images as a collection.

The exhibition made me realise that children are more resilient than I thought.  A number of the images had children in situations which I couldn’t imagine putting my children in to but for these children this was their life ‘normal’ and unquestioned; whether it was cultural, professional, medical or warfare related.  Even the children affected by war were still at play; they seemed to accommodate what was going on around them.

The other thing that interested me was access.  How did the photographer get access to take these images.  At a time when photographing children was becoming more sensitive, I wondered how clearance was given and the process the photographer had to go through to get access.

It was definitely worth taking the time to see this exhibition, it gave me a greater insight into collections of images which represent a single idea.

Technical observations:

  • all the B&W prints were on Silver Gelatin and Colour prints were C-type.  I hadn’t noticed this before at any of the other exhibitions I’ve been too so I will look further in to this aspect.
  • All prints were encased in white box frames, which seemed an un-fussy and simple way to present the images.
  • The second image in the series I thought was a bit Martin Parr-esque.

I will be scanning on the image descriptions very shortly – watch this space.

Taken directly from The Foundling Museum website page (posted here verbatim in case the site removes the page in the future.  This provides a permanent reference):

03 Feb 2017 — 30 Apr 2017
Child’s Play brings together an exhibition of photographs, a symposium and a book by artist Mark Neville, who works at the intersection of art and documentary.

Renowned for his socially focused projects, this new project aims to generate debate around the complex nature of children’s play and to advocate for improved provision for this universal right, as identified by the UN in the 2013 General Comment on Article 31 (the Convention on the Rights of the Child). At a time when up to 13 million children have been internally displaced as a result of armed conflict, and traditional public space is being privatised, Child’s Play reinforces our responsibility to ensure that children the world over have full opportunity for play and recreation.

The exhibition presents a series of Neville’s photographs of children at play in diverse environments around the world. Immersing himself in communities from Port Glasgow to North London, and in the war zones of Afghanistan and Ukraine, the artist has captured beautiful moments of free, spontaneous play. On display are new photographs of internally displaced children in Ukraine; residents of Kakuma, Kenya’s second largest refugee camp; and depictions of children at play in London adventure playgrounds, all made especially for this project. Neville’s work challenges the romantic ideal of play with the reality of children’s lives, which is often harsher and more complex. Through his photographs he captures children’s spontaneous urge to play and their determination to do so in the most unfavourable environments, revealing how through play children claim a place of power, safety and freedom. In the context of the Museum, the idea of spontaneous play is set against the institutional play evidenced at the Foundling Hospital.

A book of images in the exhibition, alongside an overview of ground-breaking work in the field of children’s play, seeks to raise awareness of its importance and to focus attention on how conditions for children in the UK can be improved. Disseminated to key policy makers, experts and each of the UK’s 433 local councils, the book is also be available to purchase from the Museum shop. A symposium on 20 March will explore the issue of spaces for play, looking at real and imagined barriers to play in our cities today.


Free for Foundling Friends

Buy a print

A limited-edition print created exclusively for this exhibition, is available to purchase from the Museum Shop. More details

The exhibition is supported by The 1739 Club, with support for the book from Outset Family.


(2017) Child’s Play, Available at: (Accessed: 28/04/2017)



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