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Inspiring confidence and championing design and creativity in the V&A’s youngsters: A Q&A with Dr Helen Charman

With an impressive background in museums and education, Dr Helen Charman, Director of Learning and National Programmes at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, is not only at the forefront of educational programmes at the museum but also a capital project to create Young V&A, a new interpretation of the V&A Museum of Childhood.

She was the founder member of Tate Modern’s education team in 2000 and is currently working on a co-designed approach to a future-facing museum for design and creativity with and for young audiences and their families.

Here she talks to MuseumNext about her role, the challenges of COVID-19 and developing the future of museum learning.

What is the Learning and National Programmes at the V&A?

The V&As Digital Design Week 2021. Engaging with young audiences is key to Dr Helen Charman’s role as Director of Learning and National Programmes

We are a department of 61 staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum made up of five teams, comprising:

  • Interpretation: galleries, exhibitions and capital projects
  • National Programmes: manage partnerships and the Arts Council England Purchase Grant Fund
  • V&A Academy: deliver synchronic and asynchronic art history courses, practical workshops, CPD courses, conferences, lectures and special events to lifelong learners, as an income generating programme with international learner base
  • Learning and Digital: run programmes for School, Communities, Young People, Families and Artist Residencies,
  • Young V&A, formally known as the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green: a £13m capital project transforming the site into a powerhouse of creativity for the young (early years to early teens), developing the creative confidence and design skills vital for Gen A to thrive. Opening in 2023.

What are the aims and objectives of V&A Learning?

Our vision is to inspire creative confidence in all our audiences and champion the skills needed to drive the future of the creative economy. The programmes we produce and projects we drive forward activate the V&A’s world leading collection of art, design and performance and dynamic creative networks to inspire, empower and enrich current and future generations of artists, creatives, designers and innovators.

What does your role involve?

I lead the 5 teams set out above, to ensure our portfolio and capital project (Young V&A) meets the vision and aims of the V&A as a whole: that is to champion design and creativity in all its forms, for everyone. I direct our work towards the V&A’s plans for audience development, reaching new audiences of all ages and backgrounds, online and in person and redefining the role of the V&A as a 21st century museum.

I sit on numerous steering groups museum wide encompassing diverse remits from resourcing to infrastructure to exhibitions to capital projects, and chaired our first Anti-Racism Task Force, driving forward our EDI agenda.  At the heart of my role is working with fantastic colleagues to advocate for the vital place of creativity in cultural life. Across the portfolio we work (pre Covid) with c 950,000 learners annually.

How has COVID-19 affected the programmes and what lessons have you learnt?

A faster shift to digital. In August 2020 the V&A Academy moved all programmes online, using MS Teams as our virtual learning environment. By September 2021 all courses were still online with some in person events being re-introduced for the autumn term, with more than 1500 unique learners per term and 15% of learners from outside of the UK and over 50% from outside London.

Our V&A Innovate National Schools challenge pitching and awards day was held online with schools joining from around the UK and our teacher development talks, and twilights have successfully moved to online.  We have also developed a virtual classroom experience in response to schools not being able to visit the museum, with seven bookable sessions regularly selling out.

Other digital shifts have included: Upstart Careers Festival – a fully online festival in collaboration with three partner sites nation-wide, for young people, with bookable workshops and talks running over the course of a weekend and Digital Design weekend festival which used a hybrid approach with onsite events and installations as well as online workshops and talks giving audiences multiple avenues to engage with our content.

Benefits of moving to digital that we have discovered include developing new creative pedagogies, extending reach and access – nationally and internationally – lower operational expenditure for programmes, whist still retaining the convening power of culture with social online learning environments being possible on the digital platforms we use.

We have also been able to continue in person programming with the Young V&A’s Summer of Play programme, allowing the content and experiences from the museum to be brought to local communities in outdoor venues.

What are some of the recent developments in museum learning to improve the way museums work with children and young people?

Co-design projects and collectives are something Learning and National Programmes department have been leading for the V&A as a way to engage with audiences, particularly children and young people in a meaningful way, with outcomes informed by our audiences that have a real impact on the museum and our content.

We have developed the V&A Youth Collective, a group of young people aged 16–24 who help shape V&A events and content, whilst gaining inspiring insight into creative careers, the museum sector, they are paid for their contributions, and the Young V&A Collective for 11– 14-year-olds.

We also run co-design projects and forums to input into our exhibition programming, such as our Africa Fashion co-design group where 13 young people explored 3 research areas over 5 paid sessions, their feedback feeding into the development of the exhibition planning.

The shift to digital platforms has also meant being able to reach wider audiences nationally.

What does the future have in store for museum learning?

Embracing digital as a valuable and social way to engage with museum content and culture, leading to increased engagement and collaboration with national and international audiences. Using new platforms as well as established ones to listen and learn from our audiences and their experiences, using this valuable resource to build on our own expertise and knowledge, and using museums’ sites and platforms to share this content alongside our collections.

Overall, we work in a designerly way: outward facing, responsive, iterative.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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