The museum-side exit of London’s South Kensington tube station has a festive feel. Especially in the school holidays, the station teems with families who have come to visit a top London museum. Once through the clatter of the tube barriers, you can either head up, out into the grand, leafy Exhibition and Cromwell Roads; or you can walk through the subway, past tuneful buskers and billboards to whet your appetite with pictures of the latest exhibition. The Science, Natural History and V&A museums are all only a stroll away.
Although each of these huge London museums has enough to occupy visitors for several days, they’re close enough to each other to do a ‘mix-and-match’ day. You could quite easily dip into a couple of sections of each – so long as you arrive early and start with the Natural History Museum, whose queues grow longer as the day wears on. Best of all, the museums are all free to enter, with a charge for some exhibitions.
Over the summer, we’d planned to spend the day at the Science Museum, at the Robots exhibition and Wonderlab gallery. Bad planning on my part meant that we missed Robots by just one day, and Wonderlab was closed for planned maintenance. So, instead, we decided to go on a London museum hop. We didn’t have the time or energy to do all three museums – but here are the highlights from our hop.
Backpacks at the V&A
I’m going to describe our day in reverse order, because I wanted to start with the glass collection at the V&A. It’s not the first London museum you think of as being family friendly, but there’s a full families programme. We tried out the back-packs, available free from the Learning Centre. The back-packs are aimed at 5- to 12- year olds and take visitors on a trail around specific parts of the museum. My two (five and seven) fitted into the age range for the glass collection, so that’s the trail they chose.
Glass collection – The Märit Rausing Gallery
It took us a while to find the glass collection. We followed the back-pack’s map through the vast museum, walking past a replica of Michelangelo’s David, through the world’s oldest museum café, and then up in a glass lift, to reach the gallery.
The V&A holds glass from the Italian Renaissance, the Middle-East, 17th–20th century Britain and Europe, and contemporary art glass from around the world. The gallery’s the sort of place where you would normally be terrified to let your child run loose. It’s all glass cabinets, with a handful of people gazing at the displays in reverent silence. But the back-pack was a good tool to help the children focus. We handled wooden objects, blindfolded, then looked for the piece of glassware that was the same shape. The children laid different coloured pieces of ‘fake glass’ (ie plastic) over each other, to see what the resulting colour would be. And the place was quiet enough for the children to sprawl out on the floor, sketching their favourite piece from the contemporary section.
Now that we’ve discovered the place, we’ll be back to spend more time there. If you’re thinking of making a day of it at the V&A – or even just popping in, check out these useful tips from Mummy Travels.
The Garden at the Science Museum
The Science Museum’s Garden is one of those places where parents can just lurk, coffee in hand, while their youngsters dash off and play/learn. Fully interactive, it’s a space for three- to six-year olds, although my seven-year old son was allowed in, to accompany his sister. In the Garden’s lively water play area, the children mill about in a river of orange aprons. These protect them from splashes while they build dams, operate turnstiles and create bubbles. A light and sound bay lets you shout down a tube, then listen out for what happens to your voice – or watch a mesmerising kaleidoscope, magnified by mirrors. There are foam building blocks, and a climbing frame with pulleys, lifts and chutes, around which an eager team of children transport brightly coloured bean bags. The Garden’s right next to the museum’s picnic area, so it’s perfect for letting off post-lunch steam.
Mathematics – the Winton Gallery
The Mathematics gallery is a new space, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. A hanging plane from the 1920s demonstrated how maths was crucial in developing aviation as we know it. The children liked the Maths gallery, but the full-on interactivity of the Energy gallery held more allure.
This was our first time in the Energy space. It’s full of screen-based educational games, which my five- and seven-year old were just about old enough to appreciate. Austin took on the role of Energy Minister, making decisions about whether to build fossil fuel power stations, or place windfarms out to sea.
On-screen mice taught my daughter the difference between renewable and non-renewable energy. She also helped the CO2 Ninjas fight evil baddies who were polluting the planet.
The Clockmakers’ Museum, and Journeys Through Medicine
These were the first parts of the Science Museum we visited. Usually, the kids race straight for the interactive zones, but I wanted to encourage them to look at more traditional exhibits for a change. This is a beautiful, quiet part of the museum, with over 1000 beautiful timepieces, dating back to 1600. The 300-year old grandfather clocks interested the children, as did a child’s prosthetic leg, made out of leather and wood. But it wasn’t long before they were clamouring to go to the museum’s more interactive areas.
The Science Museum’s the sort of place that leaves you feeling like you want to visit again, very soon. It’s a mind-blowing place for families, as this feature by My Travel Monkey attests.
Have you visited more than one of London’s museums in a day?
The nearest tube station to the V&A and the Science Museum is South Kensington. This is on the District, Circle and Piccadilly lines. London bus services also stop nearby. There are no parking spaces for visitors, except for a limited number of disabled bays for Blue Badge Holders on Exhibition Road.
If you’re inspired to visit more than one London museum in a day, check out this post on the charity Museum dash we did a couple of years ago. 26 in one day!
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