I remember that in my first week of my new role at the V&A Museum of Childhood, I asked what was hidden behind the locked bright pink cupboards in one of our classrooms. I was told that inside was our wonderful learning collection – but that I would need plenty of time to look through the objects in detail. My role got off to a quick start, teaching up to 90 school pupils every day, so I never did get the chance to look through it. This was until our closure period in October last year, when I walked into the familiar classroom, to find my colleague and senior producer for the formal learning programme, Kirsty, buried under 2,000 toys.
The museum’s re-opening will present a new ground-breaking space for children aged 0 – 14, and their families, to develop creative confidence and to access and explore the V&A collections in our new Play, Imagine and Design galleries. As a result, Kirsty (thankfully), had the more complicated job of deciding which learning collection objects related to these galleries, and therefore which ones to keep, and which to rehome.
My role, for the most part, has been to tackle the objects that no longer reflect our new galleries – but that should be kept in our future learning collection and rehome them with other museums and cultural institutions. It has been an extremely steep learning curve for me. With my background in teaching and museum learning, I have had very little to do with the management of collection items in the past.
It’s been an extremely humbling and thoughtful process. It is not that these objects are not worthy or meaningful: they have fantastic and rich stories, it just isn’t our story to tell anymore. Finding them new homes where they can be celebrated, shared and given a new lease of life has been incredibly exciting.
The objects range from the tiniest of children’s Victorian gloves to a 19th century magic lantern. There have been lead soldiers, teddy bears, dolls, children’s clothes and shoes, and musical instruments.
Some museums were looking for extremely specific objects. Others wanted more general items. In the case of the New Vic Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, they were looking for dolls and doll parts for their upcoming theatre production ‘Coppelia – A Mystery’. Their request was ‘the scarier, the better.’ Luckily, I was looking to rehome 140 dolls and the transaction was made. The performance has been postponed but you are able to spot the dolls in their preview.
We have so far donated to the Enfield Museum, Brighton Museum and House on the Hill as well as the Langley Academy, who have an in-school museum learning programme. The learning collection objects re-homed with them will serve as handling objects for their history curriculum.
Along the way, several objects have been reunited with their former owners, or relatives of their former owners. Someone will soon be reunited with their father’s toy truck – and someone else has been reunited with their great cousin’s lost letters, written as a child to their brother in the 1930s.
Some of the objects were more of a mystery! My favourite was a wooden pencil box with a secret compartment at the bottom which, when opened, revealed several random objects: a quill tip, a rubber with the year ‘1915’ and initials ‘EMS’ scratched into it, a Girl Guides badge and a piece of charcoal. Who had this once belonged to?
So, what happens next?
There are still around 500 objects that need new homes. We are working with the Museums Association ‘Find an Object’ portal as well as contacting other institutions to rehome these. This cathartic process has absolutely changed the way in which we will continue to strengthen and re-grow our future learning collection, by being extremely selective about the objects that relate to our new galleries and the rich experiences they will offer children and families.