You know the saying never work with children or animals? Well, here at the V&A Museum of Childhood that’s not really an option.*
Child-centred design is at the heart of everything we do, whether that’s developing exhibitions and learning programmes, or creating events, festivals and activities for school holidays. Even as we’re diving into the massive project of redeveloping the whole Museum, we are bringing children in to help us design it. Working without the direct input of children would feel completely unintuitive within our normal working practice, and indeed contrary to why we are here in the first place.
A Pirate’s Life for Me is no different. Child-led design and co-creation permeates the entire exhibition. Alongside a fleet of V&A objects are those made by children; there are graphic elements of the exhibition drawn by children; an audio trail written and read by children runs through every section of the exhibition; and a pirate shanty sung by children plays as you navigate the tunnel leaving the Grim Grog Tavern (which was also named by children). This was a lot of creative input to work with, and sometimes we were on the cusp of chaos trying to organise everyone, but we pulled it out of the bag thanks to our amazing Children’s Forum.
The Children’s Forum is a longstanding partnership with a local Tower Hamlets school. It’s so local, in fact, they’re only two minutes away (10 minutes if you walk with a bunch of 9-year-olds). With this Forum the museum has created some wonderful things, and the children have been part of some amazing programmes. Children’s Takeover Day, for example, saw kids from the school take over the whole museum, filling every role from Front of House Assistants or Operations Manager, to Curator and Director. For A Pirate’s Life for Me the partnership reached a whole new level – creating not just content but also becoming the stars of the show.
After learning about real and fictional pirates in the Grim Grog Tavern, you are transported through a spooky corridor with pirate ghosts and UV lighting to the Buccaneer’s Bazaar. This is where you equip yourselves with the accoutrements every pirate needs: peg legs and eye-patches, hats and hooks, weapons and pets. To help you understand what it takes to be a pirate, the Children’s Forum and the pirate crew of the Museum of Childhood made a film. In the style of public information films from the 1920s and 1930s, we created a Pirate Service Announcement – shot in grainy black and white, narrated in a crisp received-pronunciation accent and starring the kids of the Children’s Forum.
‘Have you got what it takes to become a pirate?’ the narrator asks at the beginning of the film. Two children in front of a back drop of waves and pirate ships (painted by the children themselves) jump up and down enthusiastically, giving the camera an emphatic thumbs up. The first segment is about looking like a pirate. Our wannabe buccaneers are given the onceover by the narrator and deemed to be in possession of too many body parts to feel authentic. The camera blinks and suddenly they have two fewer eyes between them, and one leg each. The following segment advises how to speak like a pirate – neatly boiled down to saying ‘aarrgh’ with gusto. Finally, throwing caution to the wind, the film explains how to fight like a pirate. Don’t forget your cutlass, be fleet-of-foot and when in doubt, punch your way out!
The most enjoyable part of all this, of course, was working with the kids. They came up with so much material for the exhibition we couldn’t keep up with their collective imagination. The film features their acting skills and set designs, both of which are fantastic, but the range of input they had on the wider exhibition meant it was a joy to produce. I now know more pirate jokes than ever before (what’s a pirate’s favourite shop? Aaarrrrgos!) and all the jokes were contributed by the kids themselves. Their ‘wanted’ posters, based on their piratical alter-egos, are ferocious and complete with their invented pirate names (your favourite colour, a part of your face and what you had for breakfast – today I am ‘Captain Green Beard Coco Pops’). Without their creative input the finished exhibition would be a much paler version.
Co-design as a concept is not something new, and indeed the Museum of Childhood has done it for years. What was different about A Pirate’s Life for Me was how extensive it was, and how meaningful it can become when done from the very beginning of the project. The Children’s Forum and their input was built into every stage of the development of the exhibition. We pitched our ideas to them and they took them where they wanted. It was a dynamic way of working because essentially we were working with our audience the whole way through. Imagine working with your critics. It’s not easy but the exhibition was made for children, so why not make it with them?