Emmajane Avery on how the V&A has established a dynamic dialogue with children to enable them to have a voice in the museum and ensure the collections remain relevant to their lives. The collaborate project has identified and removed barriers to access to the collections and has recruited families to devise and deliver tours
About the author: Emmajane Avery is Director of Learning and Visitor Experience at the V&A. Emmajane has worked in museum education for 17 years and has particular interest in activities which develop practical design skills and inspire new generations of designers as well as community programmes which add to enjoyment and wellbeing. She was previously Curator: Schools and Teacher Programmes at Tate Modern, Head of Education at the Wallace Collection and Deputy Education Officer at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Emmajane studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, followed by an MA in Museology at the University of East Anglia
From its origins in the mid-19th century, the V&A has sought to be as open and accessible as possible. On its South Kensington site you can see one of the original entrances to the museum, now within the central courtyard garden. As you enter, what do you find? Not a gallery, but a café designed by William Morris and others in the first ever museum refreshment rooms. Above, via the original ceramics galleries, is an ornate Victorian lecture theatre. The idea was that you could feed your body, mind and spirit. This even extended to the evenings as the V&A was the first museum to install gas lighting so that it could open at a convenient time for working people to visit. The V&A Museum of Childhood opened in 1872 as the Bethnal Green Museum to bring awareness of Britain’s cultural heritage to the East End, with a similarly inclusive outlook.
This aim continues today, most recently with a trio of projects which have sought to bring the voices of our participants into the museum through co-creation and co-programming. These are CreateVoice (a youth collective), a Children’s Forum at the Museum of Childhood, and child-led family tours of the new Europe 1600-1815 galleries.
CreateVoice is a very active collective of young people aged 16-24 from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds who support the V&A at South Kensington with its programming and activities for people from their age-group. This collective was borne out of a range of social inclusion projects which took place from 2007-2009. Today there are around 100 young people registered (and an extremely active group of about 25-30) which grew out of an initial a meeting in 2009 where six people who had attended one of the social inclusion projects were brought together to discuss ‘what makes a good event for young people?’. Now this group holds monthly CreateInsights (creative industries talks and workshops with curators, artists and others), quarterly meetings and studio visits with the V&A’s Director, Martin Roth, the creation of annual festivals such as Making It (a careers day about pathways into the creative industries), Create Tours of the museum by young people for young people and even off-site events and workshops at the Glastonbury Festival where they spread the word about the V&A and the welcome it can provide for people of their age.
While it is relatively common for museums to consult young people about their programmes and activities, it is less usual for primary school-age children to be asked their opinion in a sustained way. The V&A Museum of Childhood is, by its very nature, extremely popular with children, schools and families, with 130,000 participants in its learning programme in 2015-16 (against a total visitor figure of 450,000), most of whom are in the under 12s age-group. It was therefore felt to be hugely beneficial to the Museum to create a forum made up of children from this younger age-group.
“The aim was a dialogue with children, listening to them and enabling them to have a voice in the Museum, to ensure the collections remain relevant to their lives. Young people hold monthly workshops with curators and quarterly meetings and studio visits with the V&A’s Director”
The aims were, among others, to establish and maintain a dialogue with children, listening to them and enabling them to have a voice in the Museum, to ensure that the collections remain relevant to their lives and to identify and remove barriers to children’s access to the collections. Since January 2016, a group of Year 4 children from a local primary school have been working with an artist in residence to explore the physical and intellectual components of the museum through the theme of ‘play’. These children have attended the museum once a week over a period of ten weeks exploring the notion of ‘the Museum as playground’ and ‘the collection as narrative’. While the first phase of the project has only recently ended and so is still at an early stage, one of the most valuable activities so far has been giving these children a real sense of ownership of the Museum, credence to their opinions and treating them as ‘proper’ museum volunteers. They have all been issued with V&A Museum of Childhood volunteer passes, been introduced to staff and taken part in back-of-house tours, seen collections in store and begun to understand the workings of the museum, returning to school “full of energy and enthusiasm” according to their head teacher.
In December 2015 the V&A opened its Europe 1600-1815 galleries. These are a suite of seven galleries exploring the art, design and culture of Europe during a period which saw the rise of France as dominant arbiter of taste and elegance as well as global influences on European style. From the outset we wanted to understand how to make these galleries more appealing to children and families and therefore sought their opinions on the selection of objects and their interpretation. Even before the old galleries were deinstalled, a small group of families was taken around them by torch-light to explore the vault-like spaces and to investigate which objects were likely to appeal to their age-group. The children encountered a range of objects from the period, but were particularly drawn to such things as a creepy wax reliefs featuring rats and skeletons, a cabinet with a mirrored, ‘stage-set’ interior, an ornate mother-of-pearl stand and a strange sculpture of a bull with what looked like an exposed brain! They responded to to the objects using a ‘red, orange and blue’ sticker system where they scored the objects as red (‘red-hot and should definitely be displayed’), orange (‘interesting’) or blue (‘cold as ice’/not that appealing). Those with a red-hot rating were definitely to be included and at a height, where possible, where children could interact with them as easily as possible. Later we held workshops behind-the-scenes in the curatorial department looking at individual objects and posing questions about them with the children which might help with later interpretation for this audience. Label-writing workshops were also held and contributed to the creation of new family labels. Final versions of these are now in the galleries, denoted by a playful parrot symbol.
“We wanted to understand how to make these galleries more appealing to children and families and sought their opinions on objects and interpretation. Eight families with children aged 5 to 12 were recruited to devise and deliver tours in the newly-created galleries”
Lastly, came the recruitment of a group of families to devise and deliver tours for other families in the newly-created galleries. Eight families with children aged 5 to 12 were trained to be volunteer tour guides. The training involved sessions with a storyteller on how to create an engaging story as well as a workshop and Q&A with experienced V&A guides on presentation and guiding techniques. Later the curators led sessions looking at the new displays and their installation, including practical insights such as how heavy it was to move and install certain pieces! Then the children chose their favourite objects and devised inventive, fascinating and personal tours for other families to enjoy. These tours were given during the February 2016 half term, when we staged a variety of family activities themed around the Europe galleries, and were listed as part of the V&A public programme. The response from the public and the ‘performing’ families alike was amazing. An average of thirty people attended each tour and children were genuinely fascinated to be led by other children. Other important outcomes were how the children developed in confidence throughout the programme. Comments included: “it is amazing to stop and think that an 8 and a 10 yr old wrote and delivered a 20 minute talk by themselves for a large group of strangers”, “I could hang on to their enthusiasm all day!” and “I am extremely proud of what they have achieved in confidence, eloquence and determination”.
Through each of these projects we have sought to bring benefit to those involved, by giving them a voice within the Museum, offering enjoyment and new skills and, particularly in the case of CreateVoice, experience which should give greater employability prospects. The public have gained through having activities devised by those who know first-hand what would appeal to these audiences and the museums have gained hugely from putting children’s and young people’s voices at the heart of our programming.
Director of Learning and Visitor Experience, Victoria and Albert Museum