The V&A Museum of Childhood – or the Bethnal Green Museum as it was first known – has been active in East London for nearly 150 years. Right from its 19th-century foundations, the museum was dedicated to local communities, and open in the evenings for greater access for working people. East London’s first museum was an early protagonist to local creativity and ‘educational in the widest sense of the word’, according to contemporaries.
Today, it is the UK’s much-loved National Museum of Childhood and the largest institution of its kind in the world. But it holds much greater creative potential. This morning we announced our flagship redevelopment project to reinvent the V&A Museum of Childhood for the 21st century. With a vision to build creative confidence among future generations, we are reshaping the museum around the ways in which a child explores, plays and learns.
Next door to Tech City, Shoreditch and Hackney, the V&A Museum of Childhood sits at the heart of a thriving creative district. But it’s also in Tower Hamlets: the borough with the highest rate of childhood deprivation in Britain. We have a duty to this community and the potential it holds. More pressing because of the national crisis in design education, with creative subjects in many schools at the point of collapse. With creativity and design thinking both essential 21st century skills, demand is only expected to grow.
What is more, at a time when one in five children say they are too busy to play, we should also be prioritising and protecting the sheer joy of creativity, and the crucial role that learning through play holds in each young person’s development. Play teaches children how to negotiate others and cooperate, make friends, foster confidence and cope with distress. Our new museum will celebrate the positive power of play.
Our ambition is for the Museum of Childhood to be a creative catalyst for the future, activating our world-renowned collection to fire the imagination and spark ingenuity – reaching the widest possible family audience, while providing a first-class cultural experience for local communities. We want to place design firmly at the heart of young people’s lives, right from their very first museum encounter.
Over the coming years, we will reimagine how we share the museum’s world-class collection, exploring pioneering methods of digital interpretation; co-curated spaces with children; and creative exploration through play. We want actively to encourage our audiences to engage with design and craft skills; connect more widely with neighbouring creative practitioners; and provide a richer youth voice in museum decision-making.
We need to transform the museum’s spaces and refocus our resources, and we’ve appointed award-winning architectural practice De Matos Ryan to help us achieve this. In a co-design approach with local primary schools, the existing galleries will be dramatically modernised; our temporary exhibition gallery reconfigured; and our popular schools and community programmes expanded. We want to create contemporary new settings, while restoring the building’s architectural heritage. Above all, we want to significantly improve our visitors’ experience with children at the heart of all museum activity.
With so much less space for creativity in our schools, we’re using the Museum of Childhood’s outstanding collection – and harnessing our record for innovative and inclusive family-focused learning – to champion the haptic power of objects, encourage experimentation and inspire curiosity. We have the capacity to transform the life chances of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged children through the excitement and wonder of art and design.