In the very heart of Bethnal Green, there sits a Wonderhouse that has grown tired. The V&A Museum of Childhood, first opened in 1872, is a sumptuous, red-brick Victorian warehouse beloved of parents and grandparents, revelling in the nostalgia of Playmobile and Cabbage Patch Kids, Action Men and Pac Man consoles locked away in glass cabinets.
But it no longer serves the audience which needs it the most: the children for whom Covid-19 has stripped out so much creative learning from their critical years. That is why today I am announcing a £13 million new museum – Young V&A – to ensure that London remains the most creative city on the planet.
From the gaming industry to graphic design, from diplomacy to healthcare systems – we need creative people. Museum collections are there to be used, by all, as a sourcebook to feed the imagination. So, we must stop talking down a ‘lost’ generation and start providing the tools that young people need to shape fulfilling lives.
Our plan is to create a museum in Tower Hamlets – still the borough bearing the highest rates of child poverty – where children aged 0-14 can flex their cultural muscles. Levelling Up is not just about Mansfield and Stockton, it is also about ensuring our capital provides decent opportunities for young people battling generational disadvantage. And building back better should not just encompass more catch-up Maths and English lessons. Museums and schools need to work together to ensure that the strengths which kids need – teamwork; emotional literacy; oracy; and mental health resilience – are nurtured alongside a knowledge-rich curriculum. And the V&A, like all museums, has a role to play in this.
Our plan is to display 2,000 of the V&A’s most stunning artefacts – from objects in our collection like the Japanese samurai suits to acquisitions, such as Team GB Olympian Sky Brown’s skateboard and a bionic 3D-printed Hero Arm, to kickstart the power of creativity. New galleries will focus on the practice of play in the early years, getting parents off their phones and on all-fours with their toddlers. Our Imagine gallery will use the legendary V&A Theatre and Performance collection – from Joey the Warhorse to original Superman costumes – to encourage aspiring actors, playwrights, poets, and dancers. It will also contain our stunning Rachel Whiteread installation of 150 dolls houses, always a highlight for role-playing youngsters. And then in our Design studio, we will give teenagers the skills and tools to become the next generation of makers and fashion-shapers – the Grayson Perrys, Stella McCartneys and Yinka Iloris – our country so clearly needs. Alongside it, a gaming space where digital tech will act as a convenor for creative teenagers, rather than source of isolated, bedroom scrolling.
We will achieve all this in the footprint of our iconic iron-framed building (dating back to the Great Exhibition of 1851), with its beautiful mosaic floor. This has been a special place for so many east Londoners: a toddler’s first steps, a multi-generational day out, a Year 7 hang-out. When we reopen in summer 2023, we want the museum to be the public square, the shared space, for young London and its creative ambitions.
The challenge is now. Covid-19 has severed too many young people from their outlets for social expression, play and connection to others. And the impact of the pandemic comes on the back of a terrible collapse in creative education, with ever fewer students taking arts subjects and a terrifying 67% drop in Design and Technology GCSEs between 2010-2019. But as economist Andy Haldane has repeatedly stated, the jobs of the accelerating Fourth Industrial Revolution will demand creativity as a ‘future skill,’ and yet only 34% of the public feel the creative industries are for them. We need to give our communities the cultural confidence to flourish and succeed in such fast-moving times.
Great museums are as much about curating the future, as preserving the past. Pablo Picasso famously reflected that, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ Young V&A’s mission is to inspire the creative child of post-Covid London – which should exist in all of us.
Tristram Hunt is the Director of the V&A Museum