Playing with words

V&A Museum of Childhood
November 30, 2021

How can we be playful with objects? How can we be creative with our displays? How might we engage our young visitors actively and socially?

These are the questions we are currently asking ourselves as we develop interpretation for the Play Gallery.

The Play Gallery explores many different types of play – including word play. Words, letters and numbers are all catalysts for creativity and tools of self-expression.  

There is a huge array of word-play-heroes, especially for YV&A’s target audience of children, from birth to early teens. Roald Dahl uses existing patterns within language to create new, silly words. Scrumdiddlyumptious, uckyslush and biffsquiggle spring to mind – while Dr Seuss’s fantastical, inspirational rhymes are still read to children today.

Today you are You,
That is truer than true.
There is no one alive,
Who is Youer than You.

Dr Seuss

The V&A collection abounds in playful uses of language in a design context – think puns and jokes, alliteration and acronyms. From beautiful, moving Japanese haikus to downright silly limericks by Edward Lear, our collection holds a wealth of inspiration.

Cartoon showing a man with an incredibly long nose.
Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear, 1863. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Japanese coloured
The Moon Reflected on the Water by the Pier of a Bridge by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1845 – 50. Museum no. E.4878-1919 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Like a parent’s understanding of its child,
The autumn moon.

Utagawa Hiroshige

Let’s get visual

Another aspect of word play that has been exciting the team is the idea of layering up your language with visuals. This gives an additional element of art and design to engage young visitors.

Graphic word play might mean concrete poetry, visual puns or playing with typefaces, in order to strengthen the message, as the verbal significance is enhanced by visual presentation.

A visual poem in the shape of shoe soles
To Catch a Whiteman by His Manifesto, unknown artist, 1967 – 68. Museum no. E.2907-1995. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This technique is also found in calligrams (images created out of words or a single related word), from 19th-century prayers to dog food logos, you can say a lot with very little.

Booch in the shape of a dog, made with the word Spratts
Brooch for Spratts dog food, by Marples and Beasley, 1950 – 60. Museum no. CIRC.331-1976. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A lion drawn in words.
Calligram in the form of a lion containing a prayer, unknown artist, 19th century. Museum no. IM.14-1916 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The relationship between words and creativity is cyclical. Sophie Cure and Aurelien Farina, designers both based in Paris, have produced a publication encouraging people to continue to play with words and visuals. Through a series of games and challenges the next generation of designers will be inspired.

As we continue to write the text and test out ideas, we will experiment with some of these techniques and may well see object labels morphing into limericks, or text panels turn into concrete poems. Watch this space.

About the author

V&A Museum of Childhood
November 30, 2021

I work on the development and delivery of the V&A Museum of Childhood's temporary exhibition and touring exhibition programme. I have worked at the V&A Museum of Childhood since July...

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