1923 was designated the ‘Year of Children’. Dunedin undertook a children’s exhibition of ‘absorbing interest’ held in the Brydone Hall. Under the auspices of the Otago Council of Sunday School Unions and along with most other organisations responsible for children’s activities, the League of Nations Union, and the Home Science Departments of various schools a programme including exhibits, music, entertainment, lectures, demonstration, story-telling, modelling and the all important opportunity for refreshments was offered over six days from 29 October to 3 November.
The purpose was not only to entertain but to ‘bring forcibly before the minds of our citizens the vital question of child welfare in all its phases.’ Children’s interests and participation was central to the entire programme, and many exhibits highlighted the handiwork of children created with the support of their schools, Sunday Schools and clubs.
Considerable thought went into the layout of the Hall to ensure that the children’s activities and displays highlighted their achievements. The layout was that of a Maltese Cross with the main walkways crossing diagonally and flanked on either side with displays of posters and art work . Each of the four triangles of the cross were designated for the various aspects of activity such as story telling, modelling, work with Blind children, and ‘trade’ stalls of children’s books, toys, and clothes. Around the walls were ‘Missionary courts’, examples for Sunday School classroom design, and areas for Plunket, St. Johns and Home Science displays. The highlight was a central feature of four pillars supporting a dome. The pillars displayed 8,435 names of children who attended the Dunedin Sunday Schools. This central feature painted in gold and white represented ‘the glory and purity of childhood’ and placed ‘the child in the midst’ of the observers ‘thoughts, and affections, and activities’.
In the review of the opening in The Outlook the Editor noted that the Exhibition and the Annual Meeting of the League of Nations on the same evening highlighted that the ‘future of the world is dependent upon the inculcation of true and right ideas for children’. It is interesting to also note that although John Farquharson, Sunday School Union President, stressed that every child had the right to be ‘familar with the Bible’, Sir Thomas Mackenzie, possibly in jest, noted however, that ‘the Bible was the only book which the Legislature had succeeded in keeping out of schools!’ The Editor could not resist the jibe that the banning of the Bible in Schools ‘robbed children of a national right’. The Presbyterian Church had argued for the Bible to be part of the School cirriculum from as early as 1855 to no avail and although the 1877 Education Act which allowed for secular teaching only was well embedded, the Church continued to argue for the Bible to be taught, but this is another story.
What was of particular interest to Presbyterians on this occasion was the Missionary Exhibition Courts. Presbyterians enthusiasm for Missionary Exhibitions is evident throughout the archives collections and were held every 4-6 years. The displays at the 1923 occasion depicted the areas of missionary activity among Maori in New Zealand, the Pacific, China, Japan, India and Africa. Noted in a number of the local parish Sunday School annual reports is the activity of the children in preparing posters, drawing and the making of items for the missionary stalls.
It was important for the planners that the whole child was recognised and that the work of the Plunket Society and the Kindergarten Association was as significant as the work of all Sunday Schools (except maybe socialist Sunday Schools!) ‘These Associations were working for the physical welfare of the child’ which paralleled the Sunday Schools work for the moral wellbeing of the child.
Exhibition Courts for the Plunket and Kindergarten Associations focused not only on the learning of the child and the evidence of this learning but also on the appropriate way to provide for a child at home and to ensure they have some privacy which by 1923 was holding some significance in child development programmes.
The work and programmes offered by the Sunday Schools of the city was referred to by all speakers. The Mayor of Dunedin stressed how important Sunday Schools were in the life of the child and the city. ‘Anything that would interest the minds of young people and at the same time train their thoughts in the right directions should be highly recommended’. Farquharson, the President of the Sunday School Unions, encouraged those the Church groups and members present to be continually alert to the changes and advancement in educational programmes. Children were the adults of the future, he noted and Sunday School education required a more sophisticated approach and better qualified teachers. ‘The problem of harmonising the teaching given in the Sunday School with the general educational trends… while difficult and delicate, ought not to be evaded’.
The Exhibition proved to be highly successful event. The immense organisation and planning that went on behind the scenes and the staffing for each day and into the evenings was largely due to the hundreds of volunteers from around the city. For the Editor of the Outlook and the Sunday School Union it was all worth the effort if it had raised the awareness and the sense of responsibility of church members to the need to pursue Christian education with greater dedication. ‘This is the Children’s Year and there should be a general response to the appeal’, wrote the Editor.
Photographs are from the St. Andrew’s Dunedin collection Album P-A62.13