The Acton boys were exposed to a multicultural world at a young age. Their grandfather, Roger Acton, was counselor to the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce; their uncle, Guy Mitchell, had been traveling to Asia with their mother since the early 1900’s. As part of the “Anglo-American Colony,” in Florence, they mingled with people from various backgrounds and their tastes reflected the globalization of the world during that time period, at the height of European colonization. Asian artworks and clothes in the home, children’s books depicting East and Southeast Asian countries, photo portraits of the family members in cultural costumes, as well as scenes of their themed garden parties, showcase how they interacted with these different cultures. Growing up with this attitude, William and Harold developed unique identities, reflecting their nature as “Third-Culture Children.” This term refers to children who are raised in countries where they do not have a direct lineage or legal nationality, resulting in confusing emotions and relationships with their host country. Because the Acton children are not “American” nor British nor “Italian” in the traditional sense, they do not have a specific cultural heritage they hold dear and instead have developed an egalitarian perspective of all cultures, seeing them as experiences they can partake in at whim. In his memoir, Harold mentions his interest in Italian art and culture and also reveals “interest in things Chinese which developed into an obsession,” showing his exposure and comfort with cultures that he was not born into.

These interests follow the dominant ‘Orientalist’ representation of these countries during the height of European colonialism. ‘Orientalism’, coined by literary critic Edward Said, refers to the perception of “the Orient” through an Imperial European lens, referring to the cultural traditions of Africa, Western, Southern and Eastern Asia, and the Pacific. European views of these places often essentialize these places; at worst, perpetuating racist stereotypes, and at best, romanticizing these places and furthering the idea of them as “the other.” The colonial era also formed the identity of the “white explorer,” a person of European or North American origins who views “the Orient” as a place for adventure and excitement, minimizing the political tensions caused by European involvement and creating a fantasy of sorts, usually at the expense of local populations. This narrative, visible in the Acton family as well, stems from a place of admiration, but can also tokenize these places and ignore cultural sensitivities.

The exhibition also displays the cultural clothing from China and Persia, worn by the children in their youth. Interestingly, there is evidence that the salmon-colored tang suit was originally Hortense’s qun skirt that has been tailored into clothing for the boys, explaining the idiosyncrasies of the garment, as the pleating and embroidery do not follow consistent patterns or shapes. The appropriation of these aesthetics was motivated by the Actons’ interest in performance, whether for photos or at garden parties with guests, and the use of these garments, regardless of their cultural accuracy, signals their status as world travelers and “cultured” individuals. This upcycling of traditional Chinese garments along with the Actons’ other interaction with “exotic” art reveals the fluid cultural identity of the children, and their community at large. Their upbringing, despite its flaws, exposed them to a vast world at a young age, shaping their personalities and impacting their major decisions later in life. Notably, Harold’s choice to move to China can be explained by his experiences in his early childhood. His life consisted of moving around the globe, existing in these temporary spaces, and exemplifying the characteristics of a “Third Culture” child.

– Insiya Motiwala

Third Culture Children

Children Asian and Asian Style Costumes on Display

19th C. Qing Dynasty Child’s Robe , Jacket and trousers, jacket from a Qun Skirt. The main decorative motifs of this robe are peony flowers and butterflies. The peony is regarded in China as the queen of flowers and represents prosperity. The motif of butterflies symbolizes blessings. The placement of the decorations, and traces of stitches and folds indicate that the robe has been made from parts of a preexisting Qun skirt, a pleated apron skirt.
From an article on “The Florence Herald” (Jan 6, 1914) we know that the Acton boys went to a Children Fancy Dress Cotillon dressed as “most authentic Chinese”, this could be the robe worn by Harold. China Salmon colored silk with silk floss embroidery in satin stitch in shades of pink, green, purple and blue, gilded copper button knots, applique embroidered bands and black trimmings. [L.G.87.1-2.ex Conti]  ©New York University, The Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

Late 19th C. Child’s Jacket, Southern Pakistan, Western India, Magenta silk lame jacket, brocaded in gold-wrapped thread with designs of rows of boteh motifs, has an upright collar and a red cotton lining. The seams and the hems are trimmed and embellished with blue silk piping. [L.G.64.ex Conti] ©New York University, The Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

3. 19th C. Child’s Cap, Gujarat, India, Cap covered in magenta colored silk satin and richly embroidered with peacock motifs with silver gilt thread, bouillon, sequins and a metallic braid. The region of Gujarat, in modern day India, specializes in this embroidery technique, called “zari.” The lining is in yellow cotton. [L.G.74.ex Conti] ©New York University, The Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

– Claudia Beyer with Francesca Baldry and Insiya Motiwala