When the team developing Young V&A asked children what they thought about museums, the overwhelming response was: “boring”.
From 1 July, the museum hopes to change that perception by opening what they have dubbed “the most joyful museum in the world”. It will be the first free museum of its kind designed entirely for children up to 14-year-olds. And it heralds a shift in thinking about the way museums can be meaningful places for young visitors.
Philippa Simpson, the Victoria and Albert museum’s director of design, estate and public programme tells The Art Newspaper that they wanted to create an institution that could be “shaped by activity, rather than shape behaviour”.
“It needed to be informal, surprising and relaxed, challenging and friendly,” she says. “The kind of experience you couldn’t have anywhere else.”
The Young V&A was previously the Museum of Childhood, which closed in 2019 for a three-year, £13m redevelopment led by AOC Architecture. The museum looked at models across the UK, Europe and the US, such as the Bay Area Discovery Museum in California and Eureka! in Halifax, before launching a consultation process with more than 22,000 children, parents, carers, educators and SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) specialists in shaping the new design and display.
Young V&A’s director, Helen Charman, believes a wider shift is beginning to happen across the museum sector of “designing with, not for” children. At the Young V&A, one of these shifts was represented in curatorial and learning teams collaborating to think simultaneously about the selection of objects for the museum and how the audiences might experience them—instead of the standard practice of developing educational programmes that are parachuted in at the end of the process. Charman points out that “the orthodoxy of museum practice has been reliant on learning through looking”.
“But we know [that] with children, it’s experiential, a sensory learning process,” Chapman says. “That’s been a major shift for standard museum practice: why don’t we start to embed sensory learning in museum strategies?”
The new gallery is divided into three spaces catering for three age groups: The ‘Play’ area is an open landscape overlooking the museum gardens. Designed with pre-walkers in mind, it is a sensory-led “mini-museum” that focuses on the tactile qualities of objects in the collection. ‘Imagine’ is where visitors will find the Young V&A’s largest object, an 18th-century Italian marionette theatre, alongside a stage for performances by and for children. ‘Design’, aimed at older children, aims to inspire creative thinking with hands-on activities alongside displays of notable inventions by young people. Also on show are major works, including Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village), a vertiginous display of 100 dolls houses, created in dialogue with the museum’s collection of dolls houses.
Throughout the museum’s three new galleries, visitors will encounter architectural features, interactive displays and works designed in unison with children, including a kaleidoscopic stairway inspired by optical illusion toys in the collection, and a new display of portraits by photographer Rehan Jamil, made with young people from the nearby Mile End Community Project.
There is also a den-building area, a giant marble run and a self-portrait station. All of this has been realised with intent, Simpson says. “Mostly, we wanted to put aside our egos and preconceptions and give the new generation something that actually means something to them,” she says. “I’m a great believer in trusting in the sophistication of your audience—especially a younger audience. We wanted to create something that demonstrates the value we place in our visitors.”
100 years of history
In 2021, children up to 14 years old accounted for nearly 18% of the UK’s population. More than 1.68 million children live in London alone. Despite this, there is a paucity of museums tailored to children’s needs and interests. The Young V&A’s own history as a museum of children goes back to the 1920s, when the original museum, founded in 1872, was remodelled to include an additional children’s section. In 1974, Sir Roy Strong, the agenda-setting former director of the V&A, redefined the space as a museum, specifically, of childhood. The museum became the home of the UK’s largest collection of childhood objects, the National Childhood Collection.
While the former Museum of Childhood only presented works drawn from the National Childhood Collection, the Young V&A will draw on objects from across the parent museum’s vast collection of 2.8 million works of art, design and performance. This will set a new precedent for a children’s museum, making it the first museum for children that will display a national collection of artworks. Until now, existing museums for children have typically featured just a few objects and have favoured immersive and interactive displays.
“We couldn’t find anywhere else using a collection to the extent we are,” says Alex Newson, the chief curator at the Young V&A. Display a curated collection, and making this central to the experience, was important, he adds. “We didn’t want to lose the feeling of being in a museum,” Newson says. “Families didn’t want it to be a play centre. They wanted it to feel like it had the language and authority of a museum.”
But displaying a collection of unique objects in a children’s museum presents a series of rather unique challenges. These range from creating a conservation-approved slime for a display centred around the Star Wars character Jabba the Hutt, or working out how to create a life-like potato to display an original Mr Potato Head. Other objects have been installed to be more engaging to young visitors: Harry Potter’s broomstick appears to fly, while games like Jenga are presented as if they are in mid-play. But, elsewhere, other objects are behind standard glass or in vitrines. “We have to protect them for future generations”, Newson says. “But, at the same time, we realise a lot of our younger audiences want to experience those objects by touching them or putting them in their mouth—that’s how they instinctively learn and explore the world.”
This approach is relevant to wider museum practice, particularly in the field of design, applied arts and performance. “It felt important to not have things that were just a facsimile,” Newson says. Alongside the permanent displays, Young V&A will also stage an annual temporary exhibition. The first, Japan: Myths to Manga, opens in October, and explores how Japanese folklore and myths celebrate childhood.
The provision by the Victoria & Albert museum of a separate, free museum where children can run, hide, build and play—while being exposed to cultural objects and art—is welcome, especially during a cost of living crisis in which many hard-pressed museums and heritage sites across the UK begin to charge visitors for visits or admittance.
But the Young V&A may also provide a template for how existing and established museums can adapt their displays to be more inclusive and accessible to young children—now, and in the future. “I would hope museum staff will listen more closely to what children are telling us, what they actually want in a museum, what matters to them, what they enjoy, what worries them, what they hope for,” Simpson says. “Museums need to cede some control. We need to understand that, for children and adults, perfection is not as important as authenticity.”