Though our doors are staying closed for now, much work is going on behind the scenes at the V&A Museum of Childhood. Earlier this year, we began the transformation of the building, galleries and collections into a world-leading museum of design and creativity for the young.
For the first time in many years, everything is peaceful and pristine inside the museum. There are no ripped books in the middle of the floor, no chewed toys in the corners, no doll’s tea sets mixed in the dressing up box and no ‘accidents’ in the sandpit. Robby the Robot is standing silently, and the sound of thundering feet no longer echo around the building.
Over the last few months our teams have been working tirelessly to ensure that our building and collections are safe. Our security, operations and conservation teams have been diligently patrolling, measuring and checking every corner of the museum. I can proudly report that we have good levels of humidity around the building, no increase in moth counts and surprisingly, no mice at all. We even had an unexpected surprise – a litter of fox cubs! Born on the museum grounds, the cubs bought some joy to the team over the summer.
At the end of the first lockdown we started preparing to welcome back some of our colleagues. The planning was meticulous. We measured each space and agreed the appropriate occupancy numbers based on the Government’s social distancing guidelines. We put up reminders to keep our distance, wash our hands and proudly placed up certifications that each room had been COVID assessed.
Having the team back on-site allowed us to restart decanting the collections in order to rehome them, as part of our V&A East project. By the end of October, our team had already audited 95% of our collections, and 1000s of objects have been packed and moved for safe storage. The pace quickly picked up over the summer, and then, during the second lockdown, they have been diligently assessing and packing. All the while we have implemented a range of health and safety measures to ensure our teams feel comfortable – this continues to be our highest priority.
What I love more than anything is working with our audiences. Collaborative practices (co-design, co-develop, co-curate, co-produce) permeate everything we do. Children and young people in schools and family groups have been working with us to shape the museum. The reimagined galleries are not only for children and young people but have been shaped by them.
One of my highlights over the year has been working with the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis team to experiment with digital co-design, bringing together artists, developers and researchers at UCL with young people. The project involves 11 to14-year-old participants at Spotlight, and artists Kristi Minchin, Marawa Ibrahim and Dan Mayfield of School of Noise. It informs and guides our approach to digital learning and engagement. To share an example, in one of the sessions, Marawa Ibrahim asked us to spread and exercise our toes… something we all did on camera!
Another highlight has been working with colleagues in South Kensington to collect images of rainbows and homemade signs, created by individuals and communities in response to the current isolation measures. Over 100 rainbow drawings and other images produced by children have been collected as important symbols of their creativity and voice within our society. Some exciting updates to come on this soon.
As lockdown kept us at home, we read a lot, attended webinars and deepened our understanding of child development, museology and the V&A’s collections. We are reviewing planned physical activities and identifying new ways to safely and effectively engage our audiences during the next few years. We are committed to continuing our collaborative practices with diverse groups of children and young people, as well as parents, educators and youth leaders. This includes working with children’s centres, schools, youth centres and organisations in Tower Hamlets and other neighbouring boroughs. We want to reach diverse audiences and work with our local partners.
We are also eager to share the continued development of our new galleries. When the museum reopens, it will be a transformed space. Our beloved museum in Bethnal Green will be even more welcoming, more inspiring, more playful and more educational.
Our iconic Grade II* listed spaces will have natural light, better acoustics and much improved visitor facilities. More importantly it will be more relevant to children and young people today, giving them the creative confidence and design skills needed to thrive in our ever-changing world. Our vision is to be recognised and valued as the world’s leading museum of design and creativity for the young.
The Creative Team, that I lead, includes a bunch of playful and intelligent experts in curatorship, exhibition-making, learning, interpretation, performance and creative production. We all love what we do and are so excited to be working with our architects De Matos Ryan, fit-out designers AoC (Agents of Change), local schoolchildren, and each other in order to transform the museum.
Though we were deeply disappointed that our goodbye celebrations did not go to plan, we were touched to receive such kind messages from visitors. We encourage anyone interested in our plans to sign up to our new transformation newsletter. We’ll be in touch again soon.