London’s children’s museum is back. Previously known as the Museum of Childhood, it’s now been reintroduced as the Young V&A. The 150-year-old Grade II listed museum building has been thoroughly renovated and reimagined for new audiences, from infants to teenagers. Located in Bethnal Green, a neighborhood on London’s East End, the updated museum has transformed not only its own architecture, but also hopes to revitalize and re-engage the community surrounding it.
Usually, when you return to somewhere that you knew as a child, it changes size. Your own physical growth and the passing of time makes the place relatively smaller. When I was a kid, I used to go to the Museum of Childhood, as it was known then. But the strange thing about Young V&A is that it feels much bigger when I visit it now than it did three decades ago when I was a child, inverting the phenomenon. To realize this trick, the architects needed only to let the light in. By bringing in natural light through a long-blocked rooflight, the project not only restores this top-lit Victorian exhibition hall to its original state, but it also makes the place feel contemporary and generous.
“The biggest challenge when designing for young people to avoid being an embarrassing uncle,” said Dr. Philippa Simpson, Director of Design at the V&A. If the design and curatorial team met this challenge, they did so by listening. They spoke to over 22,000 schoolchildren, teachers, special education needs and disabilities groups, community groups, and families. This wide pool of co-designers shaped the project—and their impact can be seen throughout the museum.
However, despite progressive language and inclusivity campaigns, the museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, has recently come under fire for allegedly removing two trans-affirming books from the museum’s bookstore as well as taking down an exhibition poster reading “Some people are trans, get over it!” Despite these actions taken by the director before the museum’s opening on July 1, museum staff affirmed in a letter to the Arts Professional that they do not support the decisions, saying: “This decision undermines the V&A’s ability to expand our audiences, that the decision is not in line with the V&A’s values, it is not in the public interest, the decision undermines the editorial independence of curators, which may very well lead to self-censorship, is of a disservice to the visitors we serve, and a direct affront to trans visitors and staff.”
In creating the Young V&A, two leading architectural practices collaborated with the V&A’s internal project team. De Matos Ryan led the heritage and space planning while Agents of Change (AOC) led the visitor experience design. From the very start of the project, the two practices worked closely with audiences, but also interlocked their thinking with the curatorial team.
Similarly, the restored marble mosaic floor makes the space feel more cared for, brighter, even loved. The mosaics were originally made by “lady convicts” in Woking Prison in the 1870s. The painstaking restoration pays a sort of homage to these women and their craft. The care with which this revival was undertaken perhaps even offers a kind of symbolic redemption. De Matos Ryan’s approach to preserving and enhancing this much-loved historic building, which once stood in South Kensington before being moved in 1872, was to carefully reveal the building’s original form.
The Pedagogic Building: Respecting your Audience
From the mosaics to the display cases, the building itself works as a teaching tool. The Victorian structure has become more exposed, and each material tells a story. It all supports the reimagined experience of Young V&A as a place that promotes innovation and ingenuity. It’s a pedagogic building, and you don’t have to dig deep beneath the surface to get the lessons. The surfaces are lessons. Like the hand-made finishes which express hardness or smoothness, the architecture sidesteps the issue of relying on captions, when many members of the audience may be children who cannot read yet.
Cooperation with children and young people drove the project at every stage. De Matos Ryan’s and AOC opened the entire design process to younger visitors, from design to production, curation to delivery. They were involved right up to completion and will be there at the opening. Working with local schools, the architects learned that spatial and conceptual legibility is important, but so is having secluded spots for teenagers to be alone. “They wanted some creepy spaces…” Gill Lambert, director at AOC, said. “We didn’t shy away from the awkward either.”
Integrated Architecture and Design
However, there are parts of the project where you can tell an architect did the exhibition design: An architectural and urban sensibility elevates the much-loved historic dolls’ houses exhibit, which is now explored through a streetscape situating the houses in the museum’s East End context via a carpet designed to double as a neighborhood map. One of the weirder and more atmospheric exhibits that has survived the transformation is Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village). This installation of over 100 dolls’ houses has been re-displayed in a dedicated, dark space , creating an almost hallowed space, with uncanny glowing lights from within the houses, which gives the installation the focus it deserves. It’s indicative of the multiple registers at which the museum operates: local, national and international. Whiteread is an internationally renowned, Turner Prize–winning artist with deep connections to Bethnal Green.
The 5,200-square-meter museum is both a world-class center of creativity and an essential public building for the local community. The building’s central Town Square provides a generous public space for Bethnal Green, to be used by everyone. Even here, in the Town Square, the building teaches. The Square is skirted by a perimeter bench, fabricated from London’s most ubiquitous tree species, London Plane. Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green, said: “Young V&A is an exceptional new cultural and educational resource. It is a museum that has held a special place in its local community for over 150 years.”
In being highly specific, thoughtful and listening very closely, the architects of the Young V&A have shown how not to be an embarrassing uncle.
Eddie Blake is a U.K.-based writer.