Museums
Power of youth

The long-awaited Young V&A has launched in London and it heralds a shift in the way museums are designed for young people. Magali Robathan takes a look


When the V&A made the decision to update its Museum of Childhood – which has been operating in East London since 1872 – it decided to let young people help design the new museum themselves.

“From the outset, we’ve really worked with young people to think about their needs and their perspectives. That’s informed every aspect of the museum,” Dr Helen Charman, director of Young V&A, tells Attractions Management.

The Young V&A, which opened in July in Bethnal Green, is a free museum exploring art, design and performance created for and with young people aged up to 14 years. It’s the product of a seven-year project that involved detailed consultation with more than 22,000 children, young people, parents and teachers.

The result is a spacious museum housed in the renovated 150-year-old Grade II listed building that was home to the Museum of Childhood. Revamped by architecture studios De Matos Ryan and AOC, it features three major new galleries where visitors can make noise, interact with the exhibits, design their own creations and learn while having fun.

There are no fusty statues or ‘don’t touch’ signs here – instead it features a striking red performance stage, a giant marble run, a spiral staircase informed by optical illusions, an open design studio and exhibits that range from a Syrian rattle dating back to 2300 BC to Team GB medallist Sky Brown’s old skateboard.

Boosting creativity
Young people’s input can be seen throughout the museum, from the colour scheme developed with children to storytelling displays and a self-portrait-making station proposed by local pupils. Exhibits include a patchwork quilt made by students using sustainable practices to communicate their thoughts on fast fashion.

“We know creativity is a vital life skill,” says Charman. “Global organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the OECD have been making calls for 21st century skills – creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and confidence. A museum that promotes creative confidence in young people – which is at the very heart of the Young V&A – is very much needed right now.

“It’s about young people having confidence in their ideas; feeling they can bring their ideas into the world and that those ideas can effect change.”

The museum is divided into three galleries broadly aimed at different age ranges (although all children can explore all areas): Play, designed for pre-walkers, featuring a Mini Museum focusing on how small children learn in a sensory environment; Imagine, which has a focus on imaginary worlds and features a stage with props and costumes for children to create their own performances; and Design, which invites older children to think like designers. See overleaf for more details.

Collaborative working
For many museums aimed at children, learning programmes are designed once the museum is already operational. At the Young V&A, curatorial and learning teams worked together from the outset to think about which objects to include in the museum and how to present them.

The displays and exhibitions address topics that children said were important to them, and there are plenty of inspiring stories of creative acts by young people around the world.

Object labels are kept short; instead there’s a focus on encouraging children and their adults to think creatively and collaboratively. Galleries have been designed to be as dynamic and interactive as possible, with things to do to help visitors act on the inspiration they take from the collections around them.

“Young people’s voices and creativity are embedded throughout the museum,” says Charman.

“There was a very structured process of co-design, with local children working with the architects to create the museum that they wanted. Over the past two years, we also carried out a massive outreach programme working with schools, children’s centres, libraries and adventure playgrounds in Tower Hamlets.

“Every interactive in the Young V&A has been co-designed and tested with young people. Children have interviewed some of our featured artists, and you can hear those interviews on recordings throughout the museum.

“It’s such a playful, optimistic and uplifting environment. Children come running and gliding in on their scooters; they point, and say ‘wow, look at that!’ It’s a joy to see.”

Photo: Suki Dhanda/V&A Museum, London

"A museum that promotes creative confidence in young people is very much needed right now" – Dr Helen Charman, director, Young V&A</p>

THE GALLERIES: Play

In the Play Gallery, the Mini Museum is inspired by the ways babies and toddlers first experience the world with a sensory landscape in which objects are placed at children’s eye level height, where they can discover colours, textures and shapes as they explore the space.

Further parts of the collection are displayed within an alphabet running the length of the gallery, helping little ones build communication and oracy skills. Elsewhere a rainbow of cases shows objects by colour, appealing to early learners. A construction zone encourages children to use their problem-solving and design skills with a large marble run, and to have fun building dens and architectural structures in the Imagination Playground.

A large magnetic marble run allows children to collaborate to build new tracks / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
Pre-walkers are encouraged to explore / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
THE GALLERIES: Imagine

The Imagine Gallery includes a variety of spaces to inspire creative expression through performance, storytelling, imagination and community. Children can choose their own adventure and create their own stories inspired by the collections – including the life-size Joey the War Horse puppet in the Adventure Display.

A performance space, The Stage, hosts programmed activity, while a dressing up box and shadow puppets encourage children to enact their own performances.

A new display called This Is Me by photographer Rehan Jamil, co-curated with young people from the Mile End Community Project, features portraits of local children expressing what creativity means to them. The photo series is presented alongside self-portraits by creatives including Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Quentin Blake, Kenneth Branagh, Dapo Adeola, and Linda McCartney, as well as an interactive self-portrait-making station.

The much-loved dolls’ house collection can be explored within a new streetscape, alongside a commission by Emily Queenie created with local schoolchildren.

The Adventure Display in the Imagine Gallery / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
The Joey puppet from War Horse is on display / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
THE GALLERIES: Design

The Design Gallery, conceived for older children, showcases innovative objects and case studies that explore how things are designed, made and used, and the ways in which design can change the world. Hands on activities, workshops and collaborations with contemporary designers introduce young people to different design processes and help develop critical thinking, ideas creation, and problem-solving skills.

Stories illustrating the power of children’s agency are highlighted here, including the invention of the Elephant Detector by 14-year-old Chinmayi Ramasubramanian in India to reduce human-elephant conflict and the UK’s first magazine for Black girls designed by Serlina Boyd, inspired by her daughter Faith. The Factory uncovers some of the many processes and materials used in making familiar and unfamiliar objects, where children can see design processes in action. The Shed is home to Young V&A’s on-site studio resident – and is a space where children can experience the work of a contemporary artist or designer firsthand and take part in design challenges in the adjoining Open Studio.

Find out more at www.vam.ac.uk/young

The Design Gallery was conceived for older children to explore creativity / Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London
The Design for Change display / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
The Stage allows young visitors to dress up and perform their own plays Credit: Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London
In the Factory gallery, children can see design processes in action Credit: Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2023 issue 3

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Leisure Management - Power of youth

Museums

Power of youth


The long-awaited Young V&A has launched in London and it heralds a shift in the way museums are designed for young people. Magali Robathan takes a look

The transformation project cost £13m and took three years to complete Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London
The Stage allows young visitors to dress up and perform their own plays Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London
In the Factory gallery, children can see design processes in action Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London

When the V&A made the decision to update its Museum of Childhood – which has been operating in East London since 1872 – it decided to let young people help design the new museum themselves.

“From the outset, we’ve really worked with young people to think about their needs and their perspectives. That’s informed every aspect of the museum,” Dr Helen Charman, director of Young V&A, tells Attractions Management.

The Young V&A, which opened in July in Bethnal Green, is a free museum exploring art, design and performance created for and with young people aged up to 14 years. It’s the product of a seven-year project that involved detailed consultation with more than 22,000 children, young people, parents and teachers.

The result is a spacious museum housed in the renovated 150-year-old Grade II listed building that was home to the Museum of Childhood. Revamped by architecture studios De Matos Ryan and AOC, it features three major new galleries where visitors can make noise, interact with the exhibits, design their own creations and learn while having fun.

There are no fusty statues or ‘don’t touch’ signs here – instead it features a striking red performance stage, a giant marble run, a spiral staircase informed by optical illusions, an open design studio and exhibits that range from a Syrian rattle dating back to 2300 BC to Team GB medallist Sky Brown’s old skateboard.

Boosting creativity
Young people’s input can be seen throughout the museum, from the colour scheme developed with children to storytelling displays and a self-portrait-making station proposed by local pupils. Exhibits include a patchwork quilt made by students using sustainable practices to communicate their thoughts on fast fashion.

“We know creativity is a vital life skill,” says Charman. “Global organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the OECD have been making calls for 21st century skills – creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and confidence. A museum that promotes creative confidence in young people – which is at the very heart of the Young V&A – is very much needed right now.

“It’s about young people having confidence in their ideas; feeling they can bring their ideas into the world and that those ideas can effect change.”

The museum is divided into three galleries broadly aimed at different age ranges (although all children can explore all areas): Play, designed for pre-walkers, featuring a Mini Museum focusing on how small children learn in a sensory environment; Imagine, which has a focus on imaginary worlds and features a stage with props and costumes for children to create their own performances; and Design, which invites older children to think like designers. See overleaf for more details.

Collaborative working
For many museums aimed at children, learning programmes are designed once the museum is already operational. At the Young V&A, curatorial and learning teams worked together from the outset to think about which objects to include in the museum and how to present them.

The displays and exhibitions address topics that children said were important to them, and there are plenty of inspiring stories of creative acts by young people around the world.

Object labels are kept short; instead there’s a focus on encouraging children and their adults to think creatively and collaboratively. Galleries have been designed to be as dynamic and interactive as possible, with things to do to help visitors act on the inspiration they take from the collections around them.

“Young people’s voices and creativity are embedded throughout the museum,” says Charman.

“There was a very structured process of co-design, with local children working with the architects to create the museum that they wanted. Over the past two years, we also carried out a massive outreach programme working with schools, children’s centres, libraries and adventure playgrounds in Tower Hamlets.

“Every interactive in the Young V&A has been co-designed and tested with young people. Children have interviewed some of our featured artists, and you can hear those interviews on recordings throughout the museum.

“It’s such a playful, optimistic and uplifting environment. Children come running and gliding in on their scooters; they point, and say ‘wow, look at that!’ It’s a joy to see.”

Photo: Suki Dhanda/V&A Museum, London

"A museum that promotes creative confidence in young people is very much needed right now" – Dr Helen Charman, director, Young V&A</p>

THE GALLERIES: Play

In the Play Gallery, the Mini Museum is inspired by the ways babies and toddlers first experience the world with a sensory landscape in which objects are placed at children’s eye level height, where they can discover colours, textures and shapes as they explore the space.

Further parts of the collection are displayed within an alphabet running the length of the gallery, helping little ones build communication and oracy skills. Elsewhere a rainbow of cases shows objects by colour, appealing to early learners. A construction zone encourages children to use their problem-solving and design skills with a large marble run, and to have fun building dens and architectural structures in the Imagination Playground.

A large magnetic marble run allows children to collaborate to build new tracks / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
Pre-walkers are encouraged to explore / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
THE GALLERIES: Imagine

The Imagine Gallery includes a variety of spaces to inspire creative expression through performance, storytelling, imagination and community. Children can choose their own adventure and create their own stories inspired by the collections – including the life-size Joey the War Horse puppet in the Adventure Display.

A performance space, The Stage, hosts programmed activity, while a dressing up box and shadow puppets encourage children to enact their own performances.

A new display called This Is Me by photographer Rehan Jamil, co-curated with young people from the Mile End Community Project, features portraits of local children expressing what creativity means to them. The photo series is presented alongside self-portraits by creatives including Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Quentin Blake, Kenneth Branagh, Dapo Adeola, and Linda McCartney, as well as an interactive self-portrait-making station.

The much-loved dolls’ house collection can be explored within a new streetscape, alongside a commission by Emily Queenie created with local schoolchildren.

The Adventure Display in the Imagine Gallery / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
The Joey puppet from War Horse is on display / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London
THE GALLERIES: Design

The Design Gallery, conceived for older children, showcases innovative objects and case studies that explore how things are designed, made and used, and the ways in which design can change the world. Hands on activities, workshops and collaborations with contemporary designers introduce young people to different design processes and help develop critical thinking, ideas creation, and problem-solving skills.

Stories illustrating the power of children’s agency are highlighted here, including the invention of the Elephant Detector by 14-year-old Chinmayi Ramasubramanian in India to reduce human-elephant conflict and the UK’s first magazine for Black girls designed by Serlina Boyd, inspired by her daughter Faith. The Factory uncovers some of the many processes and materials used in making familiar and unfamiliar objects, where children can see design processes in action. The Shed is home to Young V&A’s on-site studio resident – and is a space where children can experience the work of a contemporary artist or designer firsthand and take part in design challenges in the adjoining Open Studio.

Find out more at www.vam.ac.uk/young

The Design Gallery was conceived for older children to explore creativity / Photo: Luke Hayes/V&A Museum, London
The Design for Change display / Photo: David Parry/V&A Museum, London

Originally published in Attractions Management 2023 issue 3

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