London’s museumland, the strip of road in South Kensington that’s home to the Science Museum, V&A and Natural History Museum, has a lot to offer families. Most of it’s completely free of charge; the museum buildings are cavernous, so there’s rarely too much jostling and bumping into people; and you will always find something there to engage your youngster.
The downside: there’s much, too much to see and do in one day. Exploring all that just one of the museums has to offer, would take at least six days. So it’s easy to end a day in museumland feeling tired, footsore, and slightly disappointed that you missed out on that remarkable collection.
On the couple of occasions I’ve taken five-year-old Austin to the Science Museum, I’ve set a time limit and let him guide me – if he’s enjoying a particular section, we’ve stayed there until he’s had enough. If he’s starting to look a bit bored, we move on. Even though I ended our trip there this weekend feeling a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see Health Matters, the permanent exhibition on the history of medicine, or Drawn By Light, the Royal Photographic Society collection (which looked stunning), we did have five solid hours of enjoyment.
Here are the Science Museum’s best bits, as selected by Austin:
Austin’s topic this term is ‘space’, so it was a perfect time to visit the permanent display of real space rockets, satellites and space probes. My favourite was the glowing earth model, which morphed to show different aspects: flight paths, wind direction and cloud formation, among others.
The IMAX Cinema
This is where the opinions of my son and I differ. We chose Fly Me to the Moon, a ludicrous cartoon about three flies who stow away on the Apollo 11 mission. One even manages to fly inside Buzz Aldrin’s space helmet and hover there while he walks on the moon. In case anyone in the audience is concerned that Buzz Aldrin might have taken the first step into uncharted territory, with a germy little insect buzzing around his face, at the end of the film the real Buzz pops up to reassure us that – in reality – Apollo 11 had been contaminant free.
Phew. They’d had me worried there. Despite my disappointment at the storyline (made worse when a local friend who we ran into at the museum said the other IMAX film, Hidden Universe, was incredible), the IMAX experience was Austin’s favourite bit of the day. Admittedly, the 3D effects were impressive, and he enjoyed learning about the first flight to the moon. But this film has little appeal to adults, or indeed to children over five or six.
This is the busiest part of the museum. Aimed at those aged seven and over (but perfectly accessible for children as young as four), it features over 50 interactive exhibits. Children can use blocks to put together an arch bridge, then jump on it to test its strength; build a tower of magnets; and play with lentils in an elaborate construction involving an oversized corkscrew, a drain, something that looks a bit like a mini-London eye, and a metal slide.
Launchpad features shows, which are excellent value (given that they’re free) and accessible. We didn’t get the timing right for the rocket show, but we did catch one on engineering, which as well as being very informative, involved audience members smashing eggs, sitting on beds of nails, and being hit by mallets. Good old family entertainment at its best.
Those were the highlights of our day. As well as exploring space and interacting with scientific models in Launchpad, we briefly visited The Garden, Launchpad’s equivalent for children aged 6 and under; and went to see the planes in the Flight section. All great stuff, and more than enough to fill five hours.
Have you visited London’s Science Museum? What were your favourite bits? And what do your youngsters enjoy about museums?
The Science Museum is on Exhibition Road, South Kensington SW7 2DD and is open from 10.00 to 18.00, with the last entry at 17.15.