One of the wonderful things about working in a museum is the opportunity to explore and share the learning collection. These are the objects that aren’t in glass cases. They can be touched, picked up and explored as part of a learning session. Handling pieces of the past is part of what makes a school visit to a museum memorable. These objects provide first-hand engagement and an understanding of how things work. You can hold history in your hands, listen to its story and suddenly, the past is tangible. Seventeen years after joining the museum sector, objects still have the power to transport me back in time.
The collection I inherited when I joined the V&A Museum of Childhood in 2017 was focused on the social history of childhood. There were clothes spanning a century of children’s fashions, beloved bears, nursery toys, board games, construction sets and more. Books had been carefully inscribed with children’s names, stuffed animals wore hand-made outfits, and collections of toys had been lovingly organised. An audit of the collection was completed to establish how much storage we might need. Of course, this took far longer than anticipated! As we explored this time capsule of childhood, each carefully labelled archive box revealed its treasures.
The museum closed for refurbishment in 2020, and will reopen as a place for children, young people, and families to develop creative confidence. The new museum will display items from across the V&A’s world-class art, design, and performance collections through the themes of play, imagine and design.
My task is to winnow down a collection of over 2,100 objects to a much smaller selection, all of which can be handled and explored by our visitors. How do you decide what to keep and what to remove? And what do you do with the objects that are no longer needed?
Some things were easy to categorise: if it was too fragile to be handled, it was added to the ‘remove’ pile. A handling collection that can’t be handled isn’t doing its job.
Other objects were harder. How many examples of a baby’s first clothes do you need? Which one of two similar objects is the better one? How many board games do we need to keep?
It is even harder when the objects have obviously been loved by their owner! I was merrily removing soft toys until I reached the teddy bears, many of whom had been loved so much that all their mohair fur had rubbed off. These bears had been entrusted to us, after all – how could I get rid of them?
We are choosing ‘keep’ objects according to their relevance to creativity, and in particular, our three new galleries: Play, Imagine and Design.
We’ve got miniature working sewing machines that help children develop motor skills. These link to the Design Gallery where we learn how things are made. We’ve got fancy dress costumes which give flight to children’s imaginations. These costumes support the experiences we’ve designed in the Imagine Gallery. So far, we have identified more than 1,000 objects to be removed from the collection.
But where will they go? Our Creative Facilitator, Francesca Chinnery, will reveal all in part two…