De Matos Ryan and AOC Architecture enlisted youthful consultees for its joyful redesign of the former V&A Museum of Childhood
How do you design ‘the world’s most joyful museum’? That was the challenge facing architects De Matos Ryan (base build lead) and AOC Architecture (visitor experience) at the Young V&A, which reopened this month after a three year closure in London’s Bethnal Green.
The answer, it turns out, is with the help of some 22,000 local consultees including, crucially, nursery, primary and secondary school pupils, who participated in a co-design process involving more than 40 workshops throughout all stages of the project, as well as AOC’s 10-month residency at the museum before its closure. A first for the museum, the co-design even extended to attaching cameras to nursery-age children (with permission) to understand how they explore galleries.
The young co-designers on the project didn’t mince their words, recalls De Matos Ryan’s Jose Esteves de Matos, pronouncing their proposed new staircase ‘boring’ before contributing to a revised design with a kaleidoscopic element that captures reflections of those moving up and down. Children explored optical illusion toys from the museum’s collection and made their own as part of the co-design process. The final iteration is the 35th, but the persistence of all concerned paid dividends.
‘It’s been a labour of love,’ says de Matos, whose practice was appointed back at the start of 2018.
The £13 million transformation is by no means the first in the grade II* listed museum’s eventful history. Starting life over in South Kensington as part of the Albertopolis collection of museums, the cast iron structure was dismantled and resurrected on the other side of town with a new brick envelope as the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872. By the mid 1970s it had evolved into the V&A Museum of Childhood, acquiring a new entrance as part of improvements by Caruso St John in 2007. Now it has a new name, Young V&A, and a new mission – to inspire creative confidence and agency.
Before, there was always the sense that the 5,200m2 museum – albeit an enjoyable nostalgia-fest – catered less for the children than for the grown-ups accompanying them. That has clearly changed, judging by the palpable enthusiasm of the youngsters exploring the re-vamped museum, whether charging about the open ‘town square’ at the heart of the museum or experiencing the delights of the three new permanent galleries announced by giant letters of Play, Imagine and Design. The first temporary exhibition, Japan: Myths and Manga, opens in October.
After detailed modelling of the light, De Matos Ryan’s first key move was to restore connections to the surrounding environment by opening up long covered-up windows. The central hall is now resplendent in natural light courtesy of the uncovered long rooflight, and the arched end window. Views out have been reinstated from the flanking galleries, revealing the verdant foliage of mature trees in the adjacent park.
Another priority was improving the circulation to encourage more visitors to progress to the first floor, previously reached by central staircases in each of the gallery wings. De Matos Ryan resolved this by introducing a new feature staircase at the far end of the central hall behind the café, which acts as a magnet to draw visitors along and up through the museum. The hall itself has been cleared of clutter including the now relocated shop, showing off the mosaic floor and giving youngsters space to roam. New semi-circular windows have been cut to give views from the hall into the lower ground level, which has been reconfigured. Meanwhile in the north wing of the first floor, a new 515m2 gallery has been created for temporary exhibitions by removing the staircase access from below, a move made possible by the addition of the feature hall staircase. Interventions to improve the acoustics and environmental performance contribute to the comfortable ambience.
AOC’s colourful design of the public areas and galleries is welcoming, fun and friendly. The giant gallery names help animate the central hall and encourage visitors to explore, with views through and out of galleries encouraging permeability. The very youngest (0-3) are clearly enjoying the ‘mini-museum’ in the Play gallery, which caters for crawlers and toddlers. Full of texture and colour, it’s a sensory delight that actively encourages hands-on exploration. Further into the gallery there’s a construction area and play zone with both digital and analogue games.
Over in the Imagine gallery, exhibits are displayed imaginatively to encourage creative expression. A Random Prompt Generator machine encourages visitors to come up with stories inspired by the surrounding objects, and enables them to record the results. A selfie-machine is accompanied by picture frames on the wall, where children can display their portrait. In the centre of the gallery, a performance area has been created in the location of the former staircase, enabling both programmed events and informal activity.
The third gallery, Design, is for older children. AOC has made two large spatial interventions inspired by the roof trusses and original cladding profile – a ‘factory’ where visitors can explore various materials and design techniques. The hope is that this will inspire and help build the creative confidence of the young visitors. There is also the Shed, a studio for the resident artist/designer, and work areas.
The design team has embraced a sustainable approach, through improved environmental performance, recycling pre-used display furniture, and through material choices such as reclaimed timber, hemp fibre panelling and the creation of rubble work surfaces using rubble from the site.
Friendly signage by Graphic Thought Facility is in the form of pointing fingers, with directions to crucial elements such as lift and toilets picked out in neon. The designers have been generous with seating, and the introduction of long cantilevered benches of London plane in the central hall is particularly successful in this most joyful of museum projects.