Optical play and the expanded archive: mapping childhood and media archaeology

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This article explores the study of pre-cinematic toys and media within the context of a multidisciplinary childhood studies department, arguing that childhood studies and media archaeology share a number of critical preoccupations, analytical approaches, and possibilities for hands-on engagement with historical and contemporary media. From the perspective of childhood, historical media such as optical toys are linked to alternate intellectual genealogies than those that might be expected within the film and media studies classroom. Material engagement with optical toys in this distinct disciplinary space brings new critical and methodological issues surrounding objects such as nineteenth-century optical toys to the surface. The article traces several core concepts that have driven media archaeological inquiry–such as regression and play–and considers how these terms have been deployed, while the closely related concept of childhood has been excluded. Close consideration of children as historical creators and users of optical media offers new possibilities for hands-on classroom practice, from the expansion of archival possibilities and constellations of evidence to the incorporation of critical perspectives from the history of object-based education. While media archaeological inquiry encompasses technologies, devices, and apparatus of all sorts, optical toys and related playthings–of all objects–offer particularly fruitful case studies for experimental analysis. Drawing these two disparate fields together reveals important connections between children as historical creators and users of optical toys and the kinds of questions and conclusions contemporary researchers may draw in classrooms today.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-43
Number of pages15
JournalEarly Popular Visual Culture
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • History


  • Childhood
  • material Culture
  • optical toys
  • play


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