Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Free, noisy, fun: Young V&A reviewed

The former Museum of Childhood has been redesigned for children, partly by children, but adults have a good time too

A £13 million revamp has transformed the former Museum of Childhood in east London into a combination of museum and playground. © Luke Hayes courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the annoying things about too many contemporary museums is that, having ditched old-fashioned closely typed descriptive labels and display cases, they often seem to be pitched at the level of a 12-year-old. So it’s refreshing to go to a museum that really is for 12-year-olds – or, at least, babies to 14-year-olds. Three cheers for the Young V&A, formerly the Museum of Childhood. It’s a combination of museum and playground, with an engaging Alice in Wonderland feel to it.

A 1930s Whiteladies art deco dolls’ house is complete with a swimming pool and a party going on inside

The £13 million refurbishment of the old museum includes letting in roof light to the big central hall with its fine Victorian mosaic floor; the benches around it have jolly foam cushions that small children can play with. That sets the tone: this is designed for children, partly by children.

It is loosely divided by the themes of Play, Imagine and Design. In the Play gallery, there are little ’uns crawling around an area where items are displayed at eye level, if you’re very small.

The mini-museum starts with touchy things – so you get a Prada fluffy green tabard in a case (just the job for camouflage in grass) and beside it a shaggy surface you can feel for yourself and a tunnel to wriggle through. Across the room, there’s a marble Victorian bust in a case next to a nice smooth surface, so children can see and feel what smooth is. In the sound area you can hear things like falling rain – and there’s a picture by David Hockney of rain on a puddle.

Then there are letters of the alphabet, with assorted artefacts – so, C for cat has a poem by Michael Rosen and two toy cats; F comes with an Egyptian fish tray from 1500-1000 bc and a small stuffed fish from the 1960s; Z for zebras has a teeny one from an old Noah’s Ark.

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