Museum Learning for the 21st century

October 4, 2018

When Tristram Hunt joined as V&A Director in February 2017 one of his key aims was to reinvigorate the educational role of the museum. My appointment in spring 2018 as Director of Learning and National Programmes is a once in a lifetime opportunity to lead a brilliant team that will reinvent V&A learning for the 21st century, activating the V&A’s core principles of imagination and ingenuity.

Our vision is to harness the potential of the world’s leading collection of art, design and performance to enrich, equip and empower learners with design-led skills and know-how that builds their creative confidence for the future. Our approach to this process of reinvention is rooted in design thinking.

At this point, you might well ask: ‘What is design thinking and why is it important to a museum?’ Your innate curiosity is right to do so! It’s this curiosity that is the foundation of design thinking, which combines multidisciplinary skills with the key principles of applied creativity, problem solving, user-centred and iterative approaches that understand and respond to people’s needs. At best, museums are places of free, open multidisciplinary knowledge, places that invite us to engage with the world, be that through exhibitions, displays, or structured activities with creative practitioners to design and make, or with expert lecturers and facilitators who bring their chosen subjects to life. Design thinking is essential to create relevant, impactful and transformative forces through object-based learning for wider creative change.

From 3500 BC earthenware ceramics to Rapid Response contemporary collecting, how might we harness the V&A’s extraordinarily diverse collection of material culture from the past in a way that helps us to understand the present and imagine the future? Context is key. Ours is a fast-moving and complex world and, as such, how people learn in museums needs big and bold ideas – ideas that may well challenge orthodoxies of museum education as they look to the future in a digital age.

In March this year, on my first morning over tea and coffee with my new colleagues, each team chose an Anthony Burrill poster that they felt either captured the spirit of their work or was a call to action. I chose ‘Ask More Questions’. The print hangs opposite my desk as a reminder to have imaginative and unbridled curiosity at the heart of our work. This curiosity is neatly captured through the perennial design-thinking question ‘How might we…?’

Designers are taught to think specifically of a user and their challenges, then to open up creative and intuitive problem-solving by phrasing questions starting with ‘How might we?’. In regular posts I will explore a range of ‘How might we’ questions for learning at the V&A, including, ‘How might we harness the potential of design to inspire the next generation of creatives, innovators, designers and entrepreneurs?’; ‘How might we embed museum collections and learning in classrooms around the country, or even the world?’; ‘How might we involve innovative thinkers of today to shape learning for the future?’, and ‘How might we marry cutting-edge child-development theory with design thinking to drive forward programmes at the Museum of Childhood?’. On occasion, posts will be accompanied by posters made by Learning team colleagues, inspired by Burrill’s work, that reflect our thinking and remind us to continually innovate in our approach to learning. To borrow from one of our current exhibitions, if it’s a question of ‘How might we shape learning at the museum for the future at the V&A’, then The Future Starts Here.

I hope you’re as curious about that as I am.

2 comments so far, view or add yours


Thanks, Helen, for sharing that persuasive mission statement. I agree this should be a high priority for the V&A and many other museums. I hope my son’s learning (age 12) in school and beyond can benefit from such an approach. For this reason, I’d love to see the promised revival of the V&A’s Circulation Dept. through more object loans – including to museums in the South West where we are.
I’m also encouraged and intrigued by the planned redevelopment of the Museum of Childhood, in terms of how its physical improvements will support an enhanced learning programme – even though my family and I can only visit occasionally.
Best wishes for your rightly ambitious plans to bear fruit.

Thanks for your comment, Russell. Working across the nation is key to our work. Not just with objects (which we do work with National Partnerships to loan objects and help acquire new pieces for institutions around the UK) but also with museum learning and programming. An example of this is our national project DesignLab Nation which works in cities around England, including Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Blackburn and Coventry, to develop skills for both teachers and students in the creative industries. You can read more about this. We are a national museum, and therefore we believe strongly that we have a national remit. And we are continually looking for more ways we can deliver this, both physically and digitally. In the South West, we have a range of activity. We are currently partners with Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter with a joint Photography Curatorial Training Scheme. The V&A Purchase Grant Fund has supported 31 acquisitions for local museums in the South West. We also have over 150 objects on long-term loan and c. 60 objects on short-term loan to museums and galleries throughout the South West (For example, one can see V&A objects at Mompesson House Salisbury, Topsham Museum, and Mary Newman’s Cottage Saltash). It is always great to get feedback from our visitors, and we hope to see you in South Kensington, Museum of Childhood, or one of the many museums in the South West where V&A objects are currently on loan.

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