After five years of research, design and invaluable input from local children, families and schools, building work on the Young V&A finally started on site in August 2021. The road to get here has not been without its challenges. As with any project, realising the big vision relies on an enormous amount of practical planning – and in this case one heck of a house move. Over the course of 2019 and 2020 (a year for relocating) the V&A’s incredible conservators and technicians painstakingly audited and packed over 30,000 objects which had been on display or in storage at the museum. These were then transported to new accommodation, while staff who had been based at the site gathered their files and belongings and moved in with colleagues at South Kensington for the duration of the build. Finally, the showcases that will be re-used in the new galleries had to be safely stored on site, while the rest were recycled or donated to a number of museums and galleries around the country.
Once the site was cleared, the contractors were quick to move in. Occupying a new building is always a complicated process, and in the case of a Grade 2* listed building an extremely delicate one. The structure itself was in fact originally part of the South Kensington complex, but was moved in the 1860s (after neighbours in that borough complained about its appearance) to serve the communities of East London. Everyone working on the renovations is acutely aware of the importance of the building – indeed many have fond memories of visiting as children themselves – and so the greatest care was taken to prepare it for renovation. Handrails were wrapped, gates and railings were boxed in and the incredible floor mosaic – laid by hand in the 1850s by women prisoners at Woking gaol – was protected using material stripped out from the previous temporary exhibition gallery.
Once everything was in place, vast amounts of scaffolding started to arrive on site to allow for full redecoration of walls and ceilings and, critically, unblocking the central rooflights. This means that when the museum reopens the much-loved central hall – which will remain the social heart of the building – will be flooded with natural light (a bold decision with two thousand delicate objects on display in the adjacent galleries, but that’s for another blog…). While the core of the museum filled with poles and planks, in lower ground areas old offices and storage rooms were being stripped away to clear space for a new suite of fully-equipped studios and workshops. But perhaps the most thrilling piece of work so far – for this writer – has been the installation of the ‘Stage’, a structure that makes use of an existing staircase to create a platform for new ideas. Here visitors will be able to present their own performances as well as to watch those by others, amateur and professional. This to me seems to sum up everything about the new Young V&A – a place to explore, experiment and enjoy.