In London and the Bronx, the Next Generation of Children's Museums

Last week, the Victoria & Albert Museum announced the July opening of its long-awaited children’s museum, Young V&A, joining the new Bronx Children’s Museum as a crucial touchpoint for the next generation to cultivate a love for art and design.

A rendering of the Young V&A's forthcoming gallery for toddlers. Credit: The AOC for Young V&A.

The question of where, exactly, children belong in public is fraught. Every few years, the debate about whether restaurants, for example, have a moral imperative to welcome them resurfaces in the form of impassioned op-eds. Arguing, as one writer does, that eateries represent the “last remaining expression of community-centered child-rearing” overlooks the long history of cultural institutions designed specially for young ones. In July, London will carry that mantle with the opening of the Young V&A museum. Its debut exhibition explores how the history of Japanese folklore and landscape have influenced the minds behind Studio Ghibli, Comme des Garçons, and Pokémon.

The concept of the children’s museum dates back to 1899, when the world’s first opened in Brooklyn. Until that point, some European museums loaned their holdings to local schools, but no similar partnerships existed stateside. Even if they had, child labor wasn’t fully outlawed until the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, meaning that many children likely wouldn’t have benefited from the programs anyway.

Though the Brooklyn Children’s Museum operated independently of the Department of Education, it welcomed more than 13,000 visitors in October 1905, according to curator Anna Billings Gallup. “The child mind is what we bend every effort to appeal to here,” she said at the time. That sentiment was presumably shared by pioneering children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore, who in 1906 created the New York Public Library’s programming for young people. Moore pioneered the concept of childrens’ reading rooms, bringing them to local branch libraries throughout New York. Library systems throughout the country followed suit, and in 1914 the Brooklyn Public Library opened the world’s first children’s library in Brownsville.

Children, circa 1900, studying a zoological exhibit at the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Credit: Jenny Young Chandler; from the collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Betty R. K. Pierce.

More than a century later, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Brownsville Children’s Library, and the New York Public Library children’s reading rooms are still serving communities. They laid the groundwork for a new world of art and cultural touchstones designed specifically for children: youngsters even collaborated with firms De Matos Ryan and AOC to co-design the forthcoming Young V&A. Everything in the museum, from the architecture to the exhibitions, was designed to meet the needs of the toddler-to-teen set and their caregivers.

“[It’s] a significant shift in the way that we make museums,” Dr. Helen Charman, the Young V&A director, told Blooloop. “To ensure this museum is relevant and inspiring and that it speaks to the needs, interests, aspirations, and dreams of children, we worked with them to create it. Essentially, what they were saying is we want a joyful place. But we also want somewhere optimistic, that speaks to the way that we experience the world.”

The Bronx Children's Museum. Credit: Matthew Lapiska for NYC Department of Design and Construction.

That’s also the case in New York’s recently opened Bronx Children’s Museum, where local firm O’Neill McVoy referenced Jean Piaget’s 1956 book The Child’s Conception of Space when imagining the interiors: a blonde wood-clad expanse that encourages all manner of climbing, scooting, and toddling around gently sloping spaces.

At both institutions, the programming—not just the design—is primed to engage the minds of young patrons: in the Bronx, they can learn about the ecology and hydraulics of the nearby Harlem River by touching and splish-splashing around a scale model. London’s toddlers will be privy to a mini-museum of their own within the larger Young V&A institution, while teens can learn about the intricacies of game design in an arcade.

Like the advent of the children’s reading room under Anne Carroll Moore, children’s museums have expanded from their New York City origins to much of the country, offering kids an age-appropriate entrée to engaging with the surrounding world through art, design, and science. We’ll cheers to that—preferably with a beverage more grown-up than a juice box.

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