One of the V&A’s most beloved sites, the 150-year-old Museum of Childhood has been closed for the past three years as it undergoes a £13m redevelopment co-designed by local children and young people.
Now rechristened the Young V&A, the museum in Bethnal Green, east London, is counting down the days to its reopening on 1 July. As it prepares to welcome visitors back, Museums Journal caught up with museum’s director, Helen Charman, and design, estate and public programme director, Philippa Simson, to find out what they’ve learnt from working so closely with children and young people throughout the process.
What are the biggest aims of the redevelopment?
Our aims are threefold: to inspire children and young people’s creative confidence through connecting them with the ingenuity of art, design and performance; to empower educators to promote creativity as a vital dimension of teaching and learning; and to influence child-centred and inclusive museum practice in both capital builds and across programming. We want Young V&A to be a joyful, optimistic place where young visitors build creative skills to help them thrive – knowing that museums can be, genuinely, spaces designed with and for them as visitors in their own right.
How does the museum take child-centred museum practice into the future?
From the outset, consultation and collaboration with young people has been a cornerstone of the redevelopment. Understanding the way in which children learn, experience, and interact with the world – by listening to what they want to see and experience at Young V&A – has been key to creating a child-centred museum.
The needs of babies and pre-walkers are very different from those in their early teens, so rigorous research and testing has informed how we have designed and curated across all our spaces, underpinned by research in childhood development.
For example, spaces within the Play Gallery harness the V&A collection to aid sensory learning and the development of speech and motor skills for our youngest visitors, while at the other end of the gallery, a dedicated space for teens explores the how and why of game design in both analogue and digital contexts. The entirety of Young V&A combines collections-based learning with social, relevant, and active experiences.
What has it been like working with children and young people on this project? What’s the most unexpected idea they’ve come up with?
It’s been thrilling, fulfilling and humbling to see the children’s ideas and aspirations become reality through the visionary work of AOC Architecture, who led the fit-out programme, and whose brilliant designs are now being brought to life in all their technicolour glory by a host of skilled joiners, decorators, electricians and showcase-makers.
Working so closely with children and young people on this project has given the team the chance to look at museum design, curation and programming anew. For example, in designing and curating a space to showcase a selection of our collection of doll's houses, the children were adamant that what matters to them is the experience of living in a community – be that where their home is in relation to their school, or where their friends live, or how close they are to the park etc. They are not interested in a display approach that presents the doll's houses as individuated elements of a historic collection. They want context, relevance - and wit.
So, the Living Together space in the Imagine Gallery presents a selection of our doll's houses as a street full of characters, including playful interactive elements and a co-produced exhibit with architect Emilie Queney that speaks to the experience of inhabiting a civic space, across a broad historical and stylistic sweep.
Through programming, this space will enable conversations about how we might best live as communities and the extent to which children's voices are included in decisions about the built environment and wider civic life. In this way, the collection can catalyse powerful debate about children's creative agency in their own lives.
What new things can visitors expect to see at the museum?
Historic features of the building such as the iconic barrel-vaulted ceilings have been given new life with glazed rooflights that reveal the completely redeveloped space and flood the centre of the museum with natural daylight – never easy to achieve in a museum!
At the heart of the central atrium – now called The Town Square, a place of convening and connection – is a new kaleidoscopic feature spiral staircase, co-designed by local school children working with architects De Matos Ryan and inspired by our optical toy collection.
A brand-new shop, café, buggy park, ramp and extended seating areas have been created to increase accessibility and comfort for families. Critically, a new reading room provides a quiet space for those who need it, and a changing places toilet has been installed so everyone can feel confident visiting.
The three new galleries, entitled Play, Imagine and Design, will feature hundreds and hundreds of objects from across the entire V&A collection, displayed in radically new ways to promote learning and development from early years to early teens. This includes bespoke object cases that are brightly coloured and closer to the ground so that all ages can engage with them easily, and interactive hands-on experiences such as sensory playscapes, an Imagination Playground construction zone, a performance and story-telling stage, an Open Design Studio.
There's even an Ames Room, which is a magic compartment that plays with your sense of perspective and shows the world is not always what it seems. The joy of this invention is that it depends upon so many different modes of creative thought – architecture, science, engineering, construction, graphics – and is only brought to life by the people who interact with it.
What do you think this space will mean for children in Tower Hamlets?
The museum has been a core part of the Bethnal Green community for 150 years, which is why it is so important that local children and young people feel a genuine sense of ownership, and that Young V&A is a centre of community for them: a safe, inviting space for them to grow up with, full of creative ingenuity and warmth.
East London is an area known for its rich history of creativity and dynamism and we hope that families and educators of Tower Hamlets will use the space to continue to inspire and celebrate the area’s immense creativity and ingenuity.
An outreach programme across the borough during the museum’s period of closure has worked with more than 12,000 children, young people and families, connecting with all the borough’s schools, children’s centres, and a vast range of community organisations, building on the much-loved and valued learning and community programmes in the museum’s former incarnation as the Museum of Childhood.
The borough has a very high index of child poverty, and Young V&A is a clarion call to recognise the vital importance of investing in creativity and cultural education in the lives of children and young people in the locality, and their families and carers.
What are some of the highlights of the upcoming programme?
We are very excited to announce that Young V&A’s first exhibition, Japan: Myths to Manga, will open in the beautiful new temporary exhibitions space on the 14 October. From sky to sea, and into the forest and city, the exhibition takes us on an exciting and atmospheric trip through Japanese history to explore how landscape and folklore have influenced popular culture, technology, and design.
Alongside a series of sensory interactives and activities, the exhibition features films such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Ponyo (2008) from the iconic animation studio, Studio Ghibli, a manga-inspired coat by Comme des Garçons, and dizzying heel-less shoes by Noritaka Tatehana, plus, of course, plenty of Pokémon!
What are you looking forward to most about reopening?
Everything! It’s impossible to pick out one thing in particular. We want to see the doors open, and children visiting a museum for the first time and experiencing it as a place of joyful, optimistic and playful inspiration, in which they feel completely at ease and welcomed, and know that they are valued as museum visitors from the outset. We are also hugely looking forward to the incredible Young V&A team and wider colleagues who have worked so hard and creatively on this project seeing their work come to fruition.