Young V&A in Bethnal Green has been redesigned with and for children – the result is a fun, tactile and friendly museum space where kids come first

Words: Libby Norman

Imagine a museum designed with and for children – it’s here, in the shape of Young V&A. Of course, teams of architects and curators were involved, but the guiding concept behind the reimagining of the former Museum of Childhood was to create a space where toddlers to teens can play, imagine and explore.

The museum has been through multiple reinventions during its history. It started life in 1872 as Bethnal Green Museum and housed disparate collections (including pieces now found in the Wallace Collection) before coming under the V&A umbrella. It was designated for objects related to childhood in 1974 by then V&A Director Sir Roy Strong. This time around, reinvention started long before its 2019 closure, with AOC architecture taking up a ten-month residency to get soundings from local children, parents and teachers.

“The showstopper is the feature staircase inspired by the V&A’s collection of optical illusion toys, co-created with local school children”

Young V&A has reunited the childhood elements that are so dear to generations of visitors and the museum’s Bethnal Green and East London identity. Children were involved in everything from the colour scheme to exhibits. For instance, local students dreamt up storytelling displays and a self-portrait making station, also contributing a patchwork quilt exhibit.

Young at heart – the reopened Young V&A
Superheroes abound – toys have been carefully curated and displayed in ways that appeal to children. Photos: David Parry, Victoria and Albert Museum London

Now, when you walk in, you are greeted by a space that feels inviting rather than imposing – a hyper colourful museum shop to your left and a neat welcome desk. To your right, breakout space plus staircase down to cloakrooms (child and adult sized loos). The lower level also houses the workshops and a library – the latter designed with neurodivergent visitors front of mind and offering quiet space for anyone who needs a break. Some of this area uses spaces previously consigned for storage.

The lofty Town Square beyond the foyer remains at the heart of the museum – with tactile and colourful elements in the London Plane perimeter bench and cafe furniture. Families are welcome to bring their own picnics or use the (very good) museum cafe. Here, clearly, is a meeting spot for locals in all weathers. The space has been re-engineered for light, warmth and energy efficiency and the design team spent lots of time future-proofing this bit of the grand old building.

That’s behind-the-scenes stuff – the showstopper is the feature staircase to upper galleries. It was inspired by the V&A’s collection of optical illusion toys and was co-created in over 40 workshops with local schoolchildren. The rocket to get to upper floors had to be abandoned early on, as did live tigers and lions, although you will spot cuddlier feline predators in abundance around the galleries.

Young V A, Mini Museum, Play Gallery David Parry Courtesy Of Victoria And Albert Museum, London ( )
Very young children can enjoy the Young V&A museum space, with brilliant tactile spaces and room to let off steam

These galleries are signposted from the Town Square – including the new temporary exhibition space – and here the child-centric approach is writ large, literally, in colourful lettering. The Play Gallery is all sensory textures, bold shapes and eye-level fun, and with an alphabet display space running along it. The Imagination Playground covers architecture and construction, while board and video games are front of mind in Arcade – this includes a new Minecraft interactive. Imagine Gallery is all about storytelling and self-expression. There’s a lush, red-carpeted performance space for readings and shows.

Design Gallery offers hands-on activities and collaborations. Children can see design processes unfold in The Factory or head to The Shed to meet the museum’s Studio Resident. There’s also an Open Studio next door for live design challenges. In fact, Young V&A is set up for a big programme of activities to ensure repeat visits and lots of interactive fun.

“You’ll find a Syrian rattle from c2300 BC and an 18th-century Marionette theatre, but also Peppa Pig and Harry Potter’s broomstick”

The most striking thing about the new-look museum is the sense of space. While there are some 1,700 objects still in place, a lot of thought has been given to displaying them in a child-centric way. You’ll find a Syrian rattle from c2300 BC and the 18th-century Italian Marionette theatre, but also a Micro Scooter, Peppa Pig, Superman and Harry Potter’s broomstick. Display cases and stands feature fun (often upcycled) materials and object labels are kept short – a high proportion of visitors are pre-readers.

Dolls Hsescopyright David Parry
For the generations who have loved this East London museum, old favourites are still here. Notably, there’s an inspired reimagining of the glorious dolls’ house collection

Inevitably, not all of the 30,000 plus objects previously displayed or stored here have made the cut. All have been carefully assessed and some will be destined for the V&A East Museum or nearby Storehouse archive in Stratford’s Olympic Park, both scheduled for a 2025 opening.

Adults nostalgic for their own childhood visits will love the fact that the doll’s house collection remains – but brilliantly reimagined. A curved and softly lit gallery area reveals the most eclectic townscape ever. Georgian townhouses, Edwardian villas, Mock Tudor mansions, rose-clad cottages and cool Scandi homes nestle together comfortably (no planning regs around here). With lights twinkling and domestic spaces to spy on through tiny windows, this feels – like the rest of Young V&A – child-centric, quirky and welcoming.

Young V&A;

Further reading: Marvellous Matilda