Child's play | Young V&A, London - Museums Association

Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Child’s play | Young V&A, London

This revamped museum for children is fun and informative
Childhood Redevelopment
Hannah Thomas
Share
Pushing boundaries in the Imagine gallery and the Young V&A, London © David Parry/V&A

“I love it so much I never want to leave,” my daughter said to me nearing the end of our visit. With two young children, I’m an enthusiastic consumer of London’s museum offerings for kids, and was naturally excited when the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) venue formerly known as the Museum of Childhood reopened this summer with its new name, Young V&A.

So often, the offerings of this city’s cultural establishments are aimed at the over-fives, but things have just got better. Indeed, what a triumphant achievement the museum’s transformation has been. It is noisy, colourful and fun – everything a museum for children should be.

On arriving you’re greeted with a large, airy atrium filled with natural light thanks to a glass ceiling. Huge letters in bright colours spell out Design, Play and Imagine, indicating the three new galleries and boldly setting out the museum’s mission. The galleries are designed with different age groups in mind, from babies to teens, but my children loved exploring all three.

Large museum atrium with a white car hanging from roof and the word 'Design' in brig friendly yellow letters
Looking into the Design and Play areas from the airy atrium© Luke Hayes/ V&A

We started with Play, aimed at younger visitors. Large, bright cases with white backdrops and uninterrupted sheets of glass show off colourful toys. The floor-level cabinets were perfect for my two-year-old to get close to the exhibits.

Interactive displays, designed to encourage collaboration, are peppered throughout this gallery. In the foam-brick construction area, my four year-old said to my youngest: “Let’s go and make some new friends,” as they went off to start creating.

Advertisement

Play even features a “mini museum” for under-threes – refreshing when older children often dominate play areas. A sensory delight, with texture, colour and pattern in abundance, the surroundings take their cue from the objects on display.

A fluffy green Prada top and sparkly silver boots are shown off in floor-level cases, perfect for crawling babies and toddlers. And why not? The beauty and creative genius of high fashion shouldn’t be reserved for adults alone.

We loved Imagine, a series of spaces to inspire creativity through performance, storytelling, imagination and community.

My four year-old’s imagination was especially sparked by Story Machine, a brilliant space reminiscent of Nick Sharratt’s book You Choose (a favourite in our house), in which children can create their own adventures using collection objects and prompts such as “where are you going to go?” and “how are you going to get there?”.

Both children were struck by the films in the sumptuous red-carpeted stage area that showcased performance in its many forms, from a magical dance piece by Akram Khan Company, to drag, puppetry and fashion.

Red carpeted space made to look like a theatre with children watching a projection
The stage in the Imagine space© Luke Hayes/ V&A

Upstairs, the Design space is packed with examples of innovative, sustainable and environmentally conscious design. Although it was pitched at older children, my two still enjoyed exploring the inspiring displays. Who knew that old sandpit toys could be remade into furniture?

Advertisement
Accessible to everyone

Diversity and inclusion are evident throughout the museum, from disabled Barbie dolls and autism-awareness trainers to the diversity of the makers. It’s noticeable, too, that there is no dumbing down for children, with reproductions of art masterpieces and objects created by leading designers sitting comfortably alongside the toys.

Child in wheelchair looks at dramatically lit display of dolls houses
Every gallery is accessible at the revamped museumPhoto © David Parry/V&A

In the galleries, the interpretation is cleverly pitched at different levels, so all ages can enjoy the exhibits. This is especially true in Play, where the displays are peppered with a mix of informative snippets, rhymes, poetry and questions. Labels are kept short, which is ideal for early readers and prompts visitors to look and imagine, rather than be dictated to.

The museum is a visual feast with each space a joyous mix of colour, texture and pattern. You can tell that children were consulted in the museum’s design process and it is all the better for it. Playful wayfinding signage in the form of giant hands clearly signposts the galleries, while introductory panels that mimic giant pegboards add to the spectacle.

On to the more practical elements of our visit. On arrival, there is plenty of buggy parking, with more at the far end of the museum. The galleries are spacious with room for children to run around, which they did, along with space for buggies and wheelchair users. There are two lifts with enough space to comfortably fit two buggies or a wheelchair.

Advertisement

Designing with and for children 

For Young V&A, both teams of architects – De Matos Ryan and Agents of Change – placed the needs and interests of children at the heart of the process from the beginning.

De Matos Ryan ran early sessions with children, families and school groups to think in open ways about how they wanted to encounter and move around the building. This is where the challenge to build the world’s most joyful museum began.

We understood that the space needed to allow for a huge range of needs and behaviours – informal without losing its impressive beauty, calm without losing its sense of surprise and excitement.

Natural light was incredibly important as children wanted more light and colour. We took a bold decision to reopen the rooflights, which unlocked a whole new way of thinking about the space as an active, communal area.

Agents of Change pushed this forward, working with children of all ages to consider how finishes and colour make the space more comfortable and friendly, while still celebrating the Victorian engineering.

We set up a studio in the museum with a viewing area for children to watch the design process. When it wasn’t in use they could look at the model on their own.

There was also a space where we tested display and activity ideas and let children propose new ways of showing objects.

At the museum’s heart is an ambition to generate new connections, not only between visitors and objects, but between visitors, to encourage them to play and create together in a safe, welcoming environment.

Philippa Simpson is the director of design, estate and public programme for the Victoria and Albert Museum

There is ample seating around the museum for exhausted parents and children, and some of it is away from the galleries for those needing a quiet moment or space to feed a baby. The main atrium is lined with bench seating. There were quite a few families eating their packed lunch here, but we opted for the cafe instead.

The cafe felt crowded, with tables and chairs tightly packed together. Some spacing of the tables could be beneficial here, as buggy and wheelchair users could have difficulty reaching the cafe counter.

The catering itself was fine. My sandwich was a little on the dry side and the coffee mediocre, but the kids’ lunchboxes were reasonably priced – for London – at £6.

Pink and green soft areas in the museum make it even more attractive to kids
Colours, patterns and light create comforting, fun spaces© Luke Hayes/ V&A

There is a microwave and bottle-warming station for feeding little ones. There could be more highchairs, but they are well made with trays that fit under the tables – a nice touch that allows you to bring youngsters closer.

The bare necessities

As I have a child who is still in nappies, good baby-changing facilities are a must. Baby-changing is available in women’s and men’s toilets – bravo. The toilets included low loos for small children, which my four-year-old appreciated.

Accessible loos with baby-changing tables and a Changing Places toilet are also available, although I noted these were locked, which would mean finding a staff member – slightly frustrating.

Boy in white tshirt and shorts looks at displays of toys
A young visitor looks at displays in the Adventure Display Imagine Gallery Photo: © David Parry/ V&A

For those needing a quiet space or to privately breastfeed, there is a designated room on the lower ground floor. Access information is stated on the museum’s website, laid out in a clear, concise way. There were also lots of staff around, so plenty of help on hand should you need it.

Both adults and children cannot fail to be entertained and inspired here. While my two children were slumped on a sofa exhausted, my 46-year-old partner was still busy taking photographs of Masters of the Universe figurines, reminiscing about toys from his childhood.

In short, the Young V&A is a riotous, colourful and loud celebration of childhood. We will be back.

Hannah Thomas is the marketing and communications manager at the Foundling Museum, London

Project data
Cost
£13m
Main funders
Prudence Trust; Dunard Fund; Buffini Chao Foundation and Trust; Garfield Weston Foundation; Andrew Hochhauser; Oak Foundation; Wolfson Foundation; Thompson Family Charitable Trust
Fit-out architect
Agents of Change
Base-build architect
De Matos Ryan
Structural engineer
Price and Myers
Lighting design
Studio ZNA; Speirs and Major
Services engineer
P3r
Acoustic engineer
Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design
Fire engineer
The Fire Surgery
Heritage consultants
James Edgar; Alan Baxter Associates
Lead designer
Agents of Change
Graphic design
Graphic Thought Facility
Material expert
Franklin Till
Media and digital design
Harmonic Kinetic
Access and inclusion consultants
Goss; Withernay Consultants
Construction project manager
Lockerdell Consulting
Quantity surveyor
Greenways
Exhibitions
Japan: Myths to Manga, ends 11 August 2024
Admission
Free to main galleries; Museums Assocation members gain free entry to temporary exhibitions

Leave a comment

You must be to post a comment.

Discover

Advertisement
Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.

Join