Young V&A shapes up for a new generation - Museums Association

Young V&A shapes up for a new generation

East London venue has been revamped as a space 'for children' rather than a museum of childhood
The museum's Town Hall with its spiral kaleidoscope stairway
The museum's Town Hall with its spiral kaleidoscope stairway © Luke Hayes courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Young V&A is preparing to welcome visitors through the doors this weekend following a child-led £13m redevelopment.

The venue has shifted its mission from being a museum of childhood to a museum for children, aimed primarily at audiences from 0-14 but designed to appeal to visitors young and old.

Developed with the help of a youth collective and consultation with more than 20,000 children, the redisplay, by London-based practice AOC Architecture, sees the museum’s permanent collection divided into three themed galleries: play, imagine and design.

The opening Play gallery features a mini museum for babies and toddlers, with sensory, interactive features alongside colourful objects from the collections ranging from 2,300 BC to the present day.

Rather than thematic or chronological displays, this section groups objects by colours and alphabet letters: a fish toy from Ancient Egypt sits alongside a modern plushie goldfish, while commissioned poems from writers such as Joseph Coelho and Michael Rosen encourage children to engage with language and objects in new ways.

The redisplay offered a unique opportunity for the curators of Young V&A. “It was a very different process, and a lot of fun,” says Sophie Sage, curator of the Play Gallery.

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Rather than displaying objects from its own discrete collection, as was the case in the previous iteration of the museum, the new venue draws objects from across the V&A’s vast collections.

“Objects in the galleries are displayed in new ways that support young people’s development. When choosing what to put in each display we’d look through the entire collections for very specific criteria – for example choosing objects beginning with each letter of the alphabet, a specific colour, or representing a certain motor skill – it was a very different way of working.”  

The galleries move from engaging basic motor and learning skills to more creative displays and activities for older children. The Imagine section features a storytelling room where children are encouraged to write their own stories prompted by objects from the collection.

Consultation showed high demand for the new museum to have a space for performance, leading to the creation of a mini theatre complete with stage lights and a dress-up room, alongside objects from the V&A’s theatre and performance collections such as a life-size model of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Gaming was also high on the wish list and the museum features an arcade with vintage and modern games including Minecraft and Dungeons & Dragons. The Town Square has also been rebuilt in Minecraft, with each door taking players through to a different, user-created world.

The museum’s extensive collection of doll’s houses are among its most beloved objects; now instead of being grouped by period these are laid out on a street that matches the layout of the streets outside.

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The ambitious redisplay puts well known artworks by David Hockney and Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa alongside artworks produced by children during the pandemic.

Upstairs, the design gallery explores sustainable materials, production techniques and the role of design in changing the world. Every six months a new designer-in-residence will work onsite, and run workshops and design challenges for visitors.

Although the museum stayed as close the brief of its young consultants as possible, a number of compromises inevitably had to be made. A spiral slide at one end of the central hall had to be dropped due to safeguarding fears that it would separate children from caregivers too easily.

Led by London-based architects De Matos Ryan, the building refurbishment celebrates and restores the iconic Victorian architecture – original windows have been uncovered allowing natural light to flood into the space, and the 19th-century marble mosaic floor has been restored and revealed. Spaces have been designed with a focus on accessibility and inclusivity, with significant improvements to circulation and noise.

The Grade II* listed building's central hall has been restored and rechristened as the Town Square, a communal space where families can relax and let their children run around during a visit.

Young V&A is the latest site to open in the V&A’s ambitious capital development progamme, which also incudes a new photography centre and the V&A East Storehouse.

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The museum is hosting a free Summer Festival featuring activities and performances on 8 and 9 July.

V&A director Tristram Hunt said: “The V&A believes in the transformative power of creativity, and that it’s critical we work – across all our sites – to support and develop the next creative generation.

“Young V&A has been designed with and for our youngest audiences – inspired by the way we learn, play and experience the world. It is a place where they can have fun, be imaginative and take inspiration from the V&A’s incredible collections. The museum is the first of its kind and by continuing to work in partnership with teachers and schools, locally and across the country, it will become a national resource for supporting the teaching of art and design.”

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