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Young V&A to reopen this summer in Bethnal Green after £13 million revamp

The Young V&A will feature self-portraits from actor Kenneth Branagh and cartoonist Quentin Blake, set alongside portraits from young East Enders.

After three long years of waiting, the former V&A Museum of Childhood on Cambridge Heath Road is reopening its doors on 1 July as the new, improved Young V&A.

For generations, the old Museum of Childhood was a favourite of parents and carers looking for a child-friendly space to keep young children occupied. But the Victorian doll houses and old rocking horses have been archived and replaced by something altogether more modern.

The V&A wanted to update the museum and make it more relevant to young people. Local organisations such as the Mile End Community Project (MECP) in Bow have been closely involved in the project.

Rehan Jamil, local photographer, often works with the MECP and will have his This Is Me collection on show at the Young V&A. 

This is Me is a co-curated display of portraits capturing young people expressing what creativity means to them, set alongside self-portraits by famous figures such as Brannagh and Blake.

This Is Me: a local young person from Oxford House community arts centre in Bethnal Green photographed as part of the co-curated display

Jamil also spoke about the importance of young artists from Bow and Mile End working alongside Young V&A curators.

‘They [the curators] came in one evening and sat with the girls to show them how something would be curated, and demonstrated how to choose images.

‘Fourteen-year-old girls chose the images for the final display with the curatorial team supporting them,’ he said. ‘It did not cost anything to come and meet these girls and now they have a new skill.’

All smiles: Young people from the Mile End Community Project with Young V&A curators

Jamil said such efforts from large organisations such as the V&A were rare, but vital to showing the Bethnal Green community that their voices are heard.

The old museum, the V&A Museum of Childhood, shut in February 2020 after Phillipa Simpson, a director at the V&A, acknowledged the need to modernise.

Jamil added that he, like many other Muslim children, loved the museum as a child but struggled to relate to it as an adult.

‘The V&A was one of the big museums you’d go to as a kid, but then you grow up and keep walking past it because the appeal had been lost,’ he said. ‘Often they would have exhibitions on from 12-2pm which we couldn’t go to because that was prayer time.’

The revamped museum will include sensory playscapes, a finger skateboard park and an open design studio.

It will showcase a diverse variety of art and photography, from Jamil’s collection to murals by Mark Malarko, famous for his street art in cities including London, Athens and Barcelona.

Japan: Myths to Manga, Young V&As first exhibition, opens 14 October 2023 and will educate children on Japan’s history and the influence of ancient folklore on popular culture today.

The Young V&A has also been supported by Emma Thompson, Nanny McPhee star, who said the gallery would boost an arts sector recently blighted with financial issues.

‘It will make its thrilling and essential contribution to our young people, whose access to arts, culture, and design opportunities, both in school and out, has been so impoverished by decades of underfunding,’ she said.

With directors learning from the museum’s 2020 closure, Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, is confident the new space will reflect a diverse East End.

‘It exists to inspire young people to find their creative superpowers, and as a space for people to come together in Bethnal Green […] our area is known for its diversity, dynamism, creativity, and extraordinary history,’ she said.

Jamil stressed the importance of having such a space in Tower Hamlets, one that can provide a sanctuary for some of the problems it faces.

‘A lot of people are living in overcrowded conditions,’ he said. ‘We need a space, that’s warm first of all, to make them feel more positive – somewhere you can come in with your own cup of tea and feel part of things.’

To see more of Jamil’s work, read about the changing faces of the East End.

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