Given this fact, it would be easy to let such an exhibition follow a predominantly historical narrative. The challenge for the curators - Professor Ian Grosvenor of Birmingham University and Dr Sian Roberts of Birmingham Archives and Heritage - is to find a more interesting course than this.
The section of the show entitled “On the Move” is good example of how to go about it. At the end of August 1939 some 25,000 children were evacuated out of the Birmingham. Their lives, and the lives of those who stayed behind or returned to pick up shrapnel souvenirs from bomb craters, would never be quite the same again. We would expect to find here, and do so, the photos of evacuation, and the Mickey Mouse gas mask, to illustrate that world turned upside down. But by combining the Blitz with material from the Edgbaston-based Middlemore Homes, the exhibition demonstrates that relocating children “for their own good” did not begin in 1939. It has a long and problematic back history.
Much of Children’s Lives is, of course, organised around the familiar themes of home and street, work and play. What struck me in the first two of these sections is that whenever Birmingham has debated and discussed its future - what it should look like, how it should grow - children have been central to that conversation.
Since the child stands to inherit the result of those planning policies it could hardly be otherwise.
Bill Brandt’s famous images, commissioned by Bournville Village Trust in 1939 for its ground-breaking book and film “When We Build Again”, are the most vivid example of this. Children are central to these photographs, and the promise of green suburbs - gardens and semi-detached housing to replace the yard and the back-to-back - are predicated on their futures.
Not far away from here the designers have mocked up a Victorian chimney to give us some impression - considerably less sooty than an original, it has to be said - of a time when the Birmingham boy might find a living by sweeping the inside of one. It was John Cadbury - the first generation of the chocolate family - who set in motion the campaign to outlaw the practice. It’s another neat connection across time and space in this reflective and engaging show.
* Children's Lives runs until June 10 in Gas Hall. Admission charge is £4 for adults, £2 for children