The UK’s new, free museum for children, families and the young at heart has opened in London’s East End. Judith Schrut has a first look at the Young V&A. 

You don’t have to be a child to enjoy London’s newly-opened museum, Young V&A, although being young at heart, with a big dollop of childishness, helps.

Young V&A Bethnal Green is Britain’s first museum of art, design and performance created for and by young people. Formerly the Museum of Childhood, and little sister of the mighty Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s emerged fresh-faced and gleaming after a huge, two-year re-design and re-development. Gone are the dated, dimly lit spaces, the look-but-don’t-touch displays behind thick glass and the cramped refreshment room. In their place are bright, spacious and welcoming galleries of wonderment, 2000+ objects and collectibles from 2,300 BC to now and from all over the world, invitingly displayed across three levels and three themes, Play, Imagine and Design.

All your childhood favourites are still here, just better displayed and more fun to view: dolls and action figures like Barbie, Ken, Paddington, Buzz Lightyear, He-Man and She-Ra; board games, video games, build-it games past and present like Tinker Toys, Stickle Bricks, the Wonder Builder, Octons, Jenga, Buckaroo and that timeless favourite, the Marble Run; moving-play toys like the Pogo Stick, Spacehopper, skateboard and little red wagon.

Other don’t-miss highlights include Japanese samurai armour, an 18th century marionette theatre and an ‘Aah’ factor Teddy Bear collection. Joey the War Horse puppet, the original Superman movie costume and other film, TV and theatre characters are displayed in new and exciting ways. I’m a sucker for miniatures, so the eyepopping collection of doll houses, including Place (Village), an intimate gallery filled floor to ceiling with over 100 doll houses collected and assembled by Turner Prize artist Rachel Whiteread,  were particular highlights for me.

Young V&A, Play Gallery, Mini Museum ©Luke-Hayes, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Young V&A, Play Gallery, Mini Museum ©Luke-Hayes, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London

But above all, the new museum is packed with make-it, try-it and play-with-it choices for serious fun. There’s a well-stocked dressing up area, a theatre and performance space, a self portrait-making station and a play-friendly café. There’s even a delightful mini-museum for under 3’s and their grownups. Spacious, light-filled and covered in soft or textured floors, walls and ceilings, it’s loaded with options for rolling, crawling and toddling, for discovering colours, textures and shapes, all at toddler eye-level height.

The museum’s top floor is dedicated to design. Aimed at older children, it’s alive with hands-on activities and have-a-go workshops on the creative process itself, with a dedicated Designer-in-Residence on hand to meet and greet, encourage and inspire.

In short, there’s something for everyone, and it’s all free.

Sustainability has been a major partner in the museum’s  re-design. Amongst other things that means low-energy lighting and heating, repurposed display cases, recycled timber and masonry rubble, and natural materials throughout.

The author meeting Banghabandu School pupils who helped design the Young V&A
The author meeting Banghabandu School pupils who helped design the Young V&A

Remarkably and uniquely, over 22,000 schoolchildren, teachers, families and local people played a key and active part in the whole project. At the media preview, I had the joy and privilege to meet and photograph the invited Year 6 kids from nearby Bangabandhu Primary School, as they crowded excitedly around the mini skateboard park in one of the galleries they helped to design.

The former Museum of Childhood always strived to be a welcoming and inclusive space, but now, as Young V&A, it’ll be a whole lot easier to be so.

Young V&A Museum

Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London E2 9PA.

Further information can be found here.

Young V&A Exhibitions & Admission

Admission Free  (with the exception of the upcoming ticketed exhibition, Japan: Myths to Manga, 14 October 2023 – 11 August 2024).

Images Judith Schrut and courtesy V&A press office. Main image: Young VA Town Square © David Parry courtesy Victoria Albert Museum