Inspiring Young Minds at London's Young V&A Museum
“Exuberance” is the word that Dr. Helen Charman, director of Learning, National Programmes and Young V&A, uses to describe the V&A’s former Museum of Childhood, newly transformed into Young V&A in London.
The museum’s playful energy is evident in the children who whizz into the airy atrium on scooters ahead of their grown-ups, in the shrieks of delight as kids’ hand-built towers of blue blocks rise and fall, and in the glee of those who dress up and dance on stage. Their excitement is contagious.
“It’s just a joy,” Charman says of Young V&A, the UK’s first museum of art, design, and performance for children and young people. Young V&A seeks to give them a sense of ownership over its national collections.
By Children, For Children
“What’s brilliant about Young V&A is that we co-designed it from the outset. We designed it with—as well as for—children and young people. That was a significant shift because it put children’s and young people’s voices at the center of the design process,” she says. “Young V&A’s alignment with what children wanted is why it was so popular in the summer. We were absolutely at capacity.”
Three years in the making, the £13 million project involved consultations with around 22,000 children, young people, and their families. The kids didn’t mince their words: around 40% of 8 to 12-year-olds told insights consultancy Beano Brain that museums were “boring.” Many museum operators would be crushed by the news.
Charman recalls the pivotal moment when children challenged architects and designers De Matos Ryan. “They said, ‘We want the world’s most joyful museum.’ It was such a delightful brief.”
A Warm Welcome
Young V&A is a place where light, color, pattern, and fun abound—and it begins at arrival. Young V&A occupies a Victorian building founded in 1872, and since children often perceive historic places as intimidating, the team immediately works to make them feel welcome.
On the welcome wall, there’s a giant pointing finger that reads, “Joy This Way.” Volunteers are also sure to greet them warmly. “We had our first 950 visitors in 31 minutes on the day we opened [July 1], and I personally welcomed everyone. We have worked so hard at that threshold moment,” Charman says.
Children and young people “immediately feel at home,” which gives them the confidence to see Young V&A as a playful environment. Young V&A is a “doing museum.” It champions the role of play in children’s lives, viewed as a way to build their resilience, well-being, and creativity, especially after the pandemic.
“Everything we do is backed up with rigorous research,” Charman says. Throughout the redevelopment, the team kept asking themselves: “Is it relevant, is it inspiring, is it social?”
Upon entry, the three permanent galleries are instantly visible with their names spelled out in giant letters: Play, Imagine, and Design. “Any child can go anywhere, but the spaces have been loosely designed to target different ages,” Charman says.
In the Play Gallery, babies and toddlers can discover a mini museum. “It’s really popular, and it’s curated around sound, color, and texture,” she says.
Although designed for the under-threes, the mini museum has world-class objects on display. “Color totems” are filled with artifacts in rainbow colors. Tactile exhibits encourage pre-schoolers to feel different textures, such as rough wood and smooth marble. Children can play with a sand pattern table to develop motor skills. The Sound It Out exhibit, which displays the alphabet through objects in the collection, is a clever way of improving oracy.
Children can work together to construct marble runs. Young V&A’s team also collaborated with Minecraft master builders BlockWorks on a Minecraft interactive for The Arcade, the Play Gallery’s game design space. Street artist Mark Malarko contributed vibrant murals.
Young V&A visitors can also let their talents shine on a plush red-carpet stage in the Imagine Gallery. “The Stage gives kids permission to perform, and it’s amazing,” Charman says.
They can take inspiration from the V&A’s collection of theater costumes and shadow puppets for their performances. A movie entertains audiences with clips from the museum’s film archive.
Young V&A respects its collections’ integrity, but “the audience comes first,” Charman says. Artifacts are presented in ways that catalyze children’s creative and imaginative responses.
Across the galleries, the museum uses objects such as the costume Christopher Reeve wore in “Superman: The Quest for Peace,” Beatrix Potter’s sketches, or model maker Tristan Blondeau’s miniature planets as prompts for children to explore and tell stories. Children even interviewed artists and designers for permanent gallery content.
Inspiring the Designers of Tomorrow
Upstairs in the Design Gallery, children learn how design is an agent of change. The gallery uses the V&A’s artistic exhibits to inspire teens to become tomorrow’s designers.
They can meet Young V&A’s first designer-in-residence, Clara Chu, who reimagines everyday domestic objects as fashion accessories.
A poignant display shows how Open Bionics has worked with children and young people to create themed covers for its Hero Arm prosthetic, inspired by superheroes like Iron Man.
A bubble-like Microlino, a tiny Italian-Swiss electric car, appears to fly out from the Design gallery over the Town Square. Guests can refuel at the café beneath. There’s seating everywhere, reading nooks, quiet areas, and dedicated learning spaces. There is also a buggy park, a new shop, outdoor spaces, and plenty of changing tables.
“When you come in, there’s a great big neon sign of a flushing toilet with a finger pointing downstairs because we know that’s one of the most important questions,” Charman says. This play-led museum doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Children can discover works by leading artists, poets, designers, and changemakers, including Virgil Abloh, Joseph Coelho, Olafur Eliasson, Miuccia Prada, and Greta Thunberg.
Young V&A will also host festivals and one temporary exhibition a year. First up is “Japan: Myths to Manga,” scheduled to open on October 14, 2023. Multi-visit tickets to the new exhibition help generate additional revenue for the museum, costing £10, while regular museum entry remains free and accessible to all.
Forging Community Connections
The museum team has reached beyond its walls, too.
“We’ve been on this site for 150 years. We’ve got a history of being a resource here. So, we made a commitment that we would work with our local community,” Charman says. In the two years before opening, the team did a massive outreach project in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
“We mapped every organization within a 15-minute walk. We worked with every school in the borough, children’s services, libraries, and community organizations,” she says. The museum also did a local recruitment drive.
Access and inclusion are important throughout the museum. Young V&A aims to meet the needs of guests with physical and sensory conditions, as well as those who are neurodiverse, both within the gallery and in its programming.
All are welcome at this “child-centered museum of creativity,” which celebrates childhood and its extraordinary possibilities. “If you come to the museum, you see yourself and the world differently,” Charman says.
By using play to unleash children’s creative confidence, Young V&A gives them the power to shape a better future.