Kate Moss as a fox, Brian Blessed as a bacterium and Stephen Mangan as a horse. No, it’s not the latest big-screen blockbuster animation. It’s Beasts of London, an interactive exhibition at the Museum of London. It was produced in partnership with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and it runs until 5 January 2020.
The Museum of London gifted us tickets so I could write this feature.
What is Beasts of London?
Beasts of London is advertised as an immersive experience. To get to the exhibition, you step inside what looks like the entrance to a jungle: a darkened corridor in the museum’s basement. The first room is just inside. A stopwatch ticker on the wall counts down the few seconds until a series of shapes are projected onto the wall. Sat on mocked-up rocks to enjoy this first show, about prehistoric London, our children and their friends watched as a spectacle of lights, colours and sounds unfolded around them. Animals emerged from smoke and fog. London was coming into being.
From then, they enjoyed following the footprint trail that guided them around the rest of the nine rooms in Beasts of London. Every room was different.
Nine different rooms in Beasts of London
A circular room, with mosaics on the floor, was the setting for a film about London’s first days, when the Romans founded Londinium. Aquila the Eagle was the star of this second room. Pam Ferris narrated her part, and she was joined by lions, brought to London by the Romans and who you can still see on pillars and gateways around the capital.
After their trip to the Tower of London, our two were excited to enter the Menagerie, a space devoted to the stories of London’s more unusual residents. These included a polar bear and a lion, who lived in the Tower in Tudor times. These days, you can see wire sculptures of these beasts in the Tower.
The spooky Apothecary showcased the tale of the deadly plague of 1665. The room was dressed like a potions room from Harry Potter. On the wall, cats, rats and a flea all squabbled about who brought the plague to London – until the unmistakeable tones of Brian Blessed admitted it was he, bacterium, who had caused the deaths.
Animal welfare in London
In a mid-18th Century pub, Tiny the Dog showed how he managed to catch and kill dozens of rats in one go. We stood behind a short wall, and watched projections of the rats scurrying around, while Tiny snapped and grabbed, under the amused gaze of the pub-goers. Luckily, no blood was shown. But this room was a good place to start a conversation with the kids about how people used to enjoy watching animals fight, and kill each other for sport.
More celebratory were the Circus and Carousel rooms. Animal welfare was still touched upon in each of these, though. We felt sad for the poor circus elephant, made to sit down for the amusement of the circus audience. A video showing his story was projected onto the wall in a space decorated like something out of The Greatest Showman.
The final two areas in Beasts of London covered modern-day beasts. A history of the city’s birds was projected onto the side of a clever sculpture made from a Taxi cab, in the shape of a London pigeon. The film featured birds of prey used to keep away the pigeons. It also showed bright green parakeets, which legend has it Jimi Hendrix released into the capital. These days, they’re a common sight in parks across the city. Also common in London are foxes, dogs and cats. Representatives from each species have a chat in the final passageway, bringing Beasts of London bang up to date.
What is the best age for children to see Beasts of London?
We visited Beasts of London with children ranging in age from four to 11. I’d say it was most suitable for the 11 and 10-year olds. The others enjoyed it, though. The eye-catching films, and journeys from one zone to the next, held the attention of the younger children. The older ones could complete the puzzles in a booklet, that also acted as a guide.
Something that was a little lost on the children, but which we adults enjoyed, was the range of artefacts on display outside the rooms, like a mammoth tooth. The children raced past these, drawn by the appeal of the interactive rooms. This was unapologetically a child-focused exhibition. It was learning by stealth. The voices of the celebrities were engaging, and the animals relayed London’s history in a fun way.
How much does Beasts of London cost?
Tickets for Beasts of London are £5 for children aged 5-16, £10 for adults, and under-5s go free.
How to get to the Museum of London
Barbican and St Paul’s are the closest underground stations to Museum of London. They’re both a 5-minute walk away. Liverpool Street, City Thameslink and Farringdon are also close.
The Museum of London is in a historic part of the city. If you wanted to take a slightly longer route, you could travel to Blackfriars. From Blackfriars, you wander through historic streets, where you’ll find a clutch of ancient-looking, historic pubs. If you wanted to take a detour from Blackfriars, you could walk past Smithfield Market, and the beautiful Bank of England building.
The Museum of London itself is a manageable size, and it was one of our favourite go-to London museums when the children were tiny.
You can also see the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron at the Museum of London. Read about it here.
Read about this and other fantastic family-friendly museums in London in this feature on 26 London museums you can visit in one day.
For another family-friendly exhibition in London, read our review of Moving to Mars at the Design Museum.