As a resident of East London, The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (Now re-named the Young V&A) has always been a special place. Somewhere I took my children to as they grew up & somewhere you could wander aimlessly & always find something interesting & new to see. When I heard that redevelopment was afoot I was concerned. This was not the 1st time they had re-designed the museum in recent years & somehow, even though it is housed in a beautiful Victorian building, it never really gelled as a collection, but its quirkiness was also why I found it so appealing.
The Young V&A re-opened in July & I wanted to find out more about this special collection (they have over 100 dolls houses dating from 1673 (The Nuremberg House) to 2014 (Qubis Haus), probably the most important collection of dolls houses in the world, so I caught up with Curator Will Newton to hear more about the museum & what they tried to achieve with the new design.
“Young V&A is the UK’s first museum of art, design and performance designed with children, for children.” Will said. “We wanted to create a museum that was a space for ‘doing’ as well as looking. One key aim was to get more ‘adult’ objects on display but to interpret them in a fun and accessible way for younger visitors.
The focus for Young V&A is children aged 0-14 plus their families. This last part is important because children don’t visit without adults. We have included plenty to engage the grown-ups too. At the beginning of the redevelopment project, a group of children we worked with asked us to make ‘the most joyful museum in the world’ which was a great challenge to be given.
The museum has been in Bethnal Green since 1872 and we wanted to respect its heritage. Unusually for a national museum, we have a very strong and loyal local audience, some of whom visit multiple times a week. Several generations of families often visit together. For a lot of kids in East London it’s their first visit to any museum, so we have quite a lot of responsibility in terms of getting children interested in art, culture & design.”
This did worry me. I often felt, as I wondered around the museum, that it was somewhere adults enjoyed more than their young companions, as they would see favourite toys from their childhood on display. Was it really a museum meant for children or about our childhoods? I was worried it had been turned into a giant indoor play centre. Will reassured me.
“Much of the museum was developed with the idea that groups of adults and children would explore the galleries together, so there simply had to be stuff there to engage adults too. Familiarity and nostalgia can be brilliant tools for getting family groups to interact and speaking to each other.”
Ok, this sounds more promising, but most importantly, what about the dolls houses?
“Dolls’ houses are one of our principal collections, people come from around the world just to see them, so we knew we wanted to display as many as we could comfortably fit in. We wanted the display to make them sing, bringing out some of their stories which would then engage children. We thought putting many of them together on a street would do all of this, presenting them as homes with residents and lives.
We have two others displayed in the room next door, ‘The Living Room, where we’ve displayed a load of objects with unconventional appearances. The first is the Killer Cabinet, a very grand cabinet house from the 1830s, and the second is the Qubis Haus, which is essentially a coffee table with a dolls’ house underneath.”
I wanted to know more about why the dolls houses are so important.
“Different people use dolls houses for different things. Miniature artists are interested from a technical and inspirational point of view. Others focus on the play or social historical aspects of dolls’ houses, their place in the education and development of children. Others still appreciate their stylistic aspects, the fact that some are miniature records of interior design taste. They may even be useful for family historians, as often the older dolls’ houses passed through several generations of the same family with each adding their mark in some way.”
Will & I agreed on our favourite dolls house, The Whiteladies House. This is an Art Deco example dating from the mid-1930s, made by a group of Hampstead artists to raise money for charity, and to record their own lives and aspirations in miniature. It’s got a swimming pool, a tennis court, lots of space for eating, drinking, and dancing, and its pipe-cleaner dolls are very distinctive and very fashionable. Other significant houses in the collection are the Tate Baby House & the Nuremberg House.
Something else that had always slightly niggled me, was the acquisition of the Rachel Whiteread installation ‘Place (Village)’. Although this is a stunningly atmospherical piece, I always felt it was more of an art installation & did not have a place in the museum. It takes up a lot of space that could be used to display more houses from their collection. I asked Will the reasoning behind it.
“We wanted a thread in the galleries about people being inspired by visiting museums and looking at objects which led them to be creative adults. Rachel Whiteread used to visit the museum as a child growing up in Ilford in the 60s and 70s. These visits provoked a fascination with dolls’ houses, which she understood as being full of stories – just like real homes. She donated her installation, Place (Village), to the museum in 2017. Its concept is of a hilltop village at night with all the houses empty, a receptacle for the viewers’ own stories and speculations.”
Not all of the 100 dolls houses in the V&A collection are on display at the museum, but Will said they were planning on rotating the displays, so other dolls houses would be appearing in the future. He also talked about the ‘V&A East Storehouse’, scheduled to open in 2025. This is going to house around 250 000 items & 350 000 books from across all the V&A in one place, including the dolls houses. The plan is to allow the general public to book appointments to view items they are interested in. This sounds like an exciting if unbelievable resource & I cannot wait to visit when it opens. You can find out more about the new V&A Museums for East London here. https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/va-east