Museum of London

It’s eerie is walking though the streets to get to the Museum of London at the weekend. Whatever it’s like during the week, on a Sunday morning it’s practically empty with just the sound of ancient church bells on the wind to accompany the slog up from the river.

The London Wall at the Museum of London

The Museum of London, you see, is  very appropriately situated in the middle of the City of London. Right next to one of the last few pieces of the original wall marking what for a long time were its borders. If that doesn’t bring home to you just how large the place is now, then the very long bus journey from Saaf West Laandaan will. Well, that and the lengthy monologue about the history of agriculture (the whole history of agriculture. Yes, that’s right, *all* of it) Mama had entertained us with on the way.

Did I mention how long the ride was?

Quite why Mama thought farming methods were a good preparation for this museum I am not sure because, apart from the section about prehistoric London when the mammoths and sabre tooth tigers ruled, the history of London is, well, really not terribly rural.

Which is fine by us. We are second generation urbanites and capital city snobs if you ignore Mama’s contributiton our gene pool, which in this case we really really do.

The layout of the museum is chronological – you start at the beginning and progress through sections devoted to particular periods, like Roman times, medieval London, early modern, Victorian, and the sixties and so on, with occasional side forays in the Big London Events like the plague, the great fire and the world wars.

Each of these sections has its own feel and focuses on a different aspect of London life – whatever seems to have been in the ascendancy at the time (kings, commerce, dirt, religion, commerce, ruling the WORLD baby, commerce, commerce, commerce, fashion and the arts) – and is almost like a mini museum within a museum.

This constant rebooting keeps us interested, as does the opportunities for interaction which are not a main focus but present in every period and very varied from place to place from dressing up, to multimedia button pushing, cinematic experiences and interractive dioramas. Our favourites are the twisty luminous blue projection of the Thames where you can catch different symbols and turn them into words showcasing difficult town planning questions (at which point we lose interest a bit), and the one where you can attempt to purge the fetid Thames waters of poo (which doesn’t ever get old).

Some other highlights for us. The Roman area has had some revamping done by a group of teenagers, and is full of films bringing things like gladiatorial matches into the 20th Century, although Mama enjoyed looking into the cupboards and hearing about Roman cuisine best.

Roman living room at the Museum of London

The Victorian section is organised as a lifesized mock up of streets, with shops you can look into and sometimes enter and sometimes even TOUCH THE THINGS.

Not the toy shop though, which is a shame because we insisted on standing there with our noses pressed against the window longingly. But Mama says this is almost certainly what our family would have been doing at that time too, and so approved, from a historically accurate perspective. Good job, the Museum of London for an authentic Victorian childhood experience.

Victorian toy shop at the Museum of London

To prevent us getting too frustrated though, there is an area later where we can have a hands on play around with the sorts of toys and watch the sorts of TV shows that Mama and Granny and Grandad would remember. It is surprising, Mama thinks, that after hours and hours of all the shows that Cbeebies can offer to say nothing of our tablets, how popular Bill, Ben and the Weed are with us.

Mama’s favourite bit is the 18th Century Vauxhall pleasure gardens experience. You can stroll round, admiring the large-skirted high-haired mannequins and watching the little costumed playlettes projected on the walls around you. What she particularly likes is that the skits are not showing wildly dramatic narrative arcs but just designed to make you feel as though you are evesdropping on other visitors to the park as you yourself stroll around. We have to drag her out, usually.

This pales into comparison with the lifesize models of horses unencumbered by any kind of glass or rope barrier though. They are pulling some kind of fancy gold coach but this is not as interesting as being able to get up close and personal with my favourite animal, safe in the knowledge that if I run under their tummies, they will not kick or bite me.

The Museum of London is surprisingly good value for horse spotters, actually. Or at least surprising for someone who hasn’t taken the history of trying to slog your way around the city into account. This is one of Mama’s obsessions, of course. I think we’d better move on before she launches into the history of transport with a side rant about great traffic jams she has endured in the capital.

Horse sculpture at the Museum of London

And what better place to move on to than the café? Which is conveniently situated about two thirds of the way round in a nice large space with plenty of seating and excellent access to toilets and as a result almost impossible not to stop at (well played again the Museum of London).

It’s more of a cake, coffee and cocoa stop than a place for anything more substantial, but there is another one for that near the entrance, and a few, although not many, somewhat less pricy hot food emporiums in the walkways around. If you have bought sandwiches and womanfully resisted the call of the café, it should be possible to use what is otherwise the schools’ lunch room, as long as there aren’t any schools visiting that day of course.

All in all, the Museum of London is one of London’s fullest and most interesting museums for Mama, the history graduate, and luckily well set up for welcoming young people enthusiastically through its doors as well. It’s a tad off the tourist route but also close enough to places like St Paul’s, the Monument and the Tower of London that us Londoners who live in the modern suburbs could find out about our city’s older history and then go for a wander around it all in one day.

And the Museum of London is also an excellent place to take us kids on a rainy day.

This is not because the exhibits themselves are all undercover – although they are – or because the museum is large, and packed with interesting things which will keep us occupied for hours – although it is – but because it is part of the Barbican complex.

What this means is that you get an extensive network of covered walkways extending out around the museum which, once you have finished with history, you can canter joyfully around in relative comfort no matter how much water is falling out of the skies.

Some people might object to the brutalist concrete tower block scenery that forms the backdrop to this, but Mama’s secret ambition is to own a flat in this striking development, so she minds not one bit. She is from the New Town of Stevenage after all. This is the height of beauty for her. And she enjoys the contrast between the architecture here and the much older aesthetic we wandered past on our way in.

You can, of course, also visit the Barbican centre itself. As`well as whatever exhibitions they have on, Mama recommends the toilets on the first floor around lunch time. For some reason you can hear an orchestra practising really really well in there.

So you should visit, especially if you live anwhere in Britain. You only exist to support life in the capital, after all, so you probably should know more about it.

More Information

The Museum of London’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about Doctor Who’s guide to London landmarks.

Address: 150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN

Opening: Monday to Sunday 10am to 6pm.

Admission: Free, although some special exhibitions will have an extra fee.

By tube: Barbican (Hammersmith and City, Bakerloo and Circle lines) or St Paul’s (Central line)

By train: Liverpool Street or Farringdon (also on the Hammersmith and City, Bakerloo and Circle lines) or the City Thameslink.

By bus: Routes 4, 8, 25, 56, 100, 172, 242, 521. The museum is on the London Wall at the junction with Aldersgate Street.

By car: If you are tired of London, trying to travel around it by car will not improve matters, and neither will trying to find a parking space you can afford. Or indeed any parking space. As Dr Johnson might have said.

The Horniman Museum, London

Mama likes to think that my Superdooper Big Brother is *her* son, although the animal obsession is all his own. But every now and again, he reminds her that Papa also had something to do with it.

One of those times was when she realised that he is a born collector.

It always puzzled her when, after she had given him control of the car boot sale toy budget, he would pass over that snazzy looking lion in favour of this motheaten sorry specimen of an armadillo. Eventually she realised it is because my Superdooper Big Brother is filling in the gaps in an increasingly vast collection of the animal kingdom in soft toy form, currently occupying half the bedroom and most of the space down the back of the sofa.

Mama thinks that he would really have preferred to be born in the Victorian age. This is because his ambition is to have a live animal museum. ‘You mean a zoo?’ Mama corrected. ‘No,’ said my Superdooper Big Brother. ‘You can’t see the animals properly in zoos. I will have them in those small glass museum cases, but alive, because that’s more interesting.’

He also wants to hunt the animals for his museum down himself. Look, he’s six. He’ll develop empathy later. Mama hopes. He is also quite keen on becoming an assassin of rhino poachers, so that’s something.

Anyway. Mama thinks that both my Superdooper Big Brother and Papa would have got on very well with Mr Horniman of the Horniman Museum, a Victorian tea trader and avid collector who eventually realised that he had filled so many of his rooms with carefully labelled stuff that he might as well be living in a museum, and so promptly did. Or rather, didn’t, because at about that point his wife insisted they move out (‘Either the collection goes or we do,’ were the exact words, apparently. Mama sympathises. She also wonders if Mrs Horniman and Mrs Soane had a support group).

The Horniman Museum

Obviously what my Superdooper Big Brother appreciates most are the large number of stuffed animals. The Horniman Museum is particularly proud of its walrus, but Mama really likes the way many of the cases are designed to actually teach viewers something rather than just serve as curiosity cabinets. She and my Superdooper Big Brother, for example, can spend rather more time than I think is strictly necessary looking at the cases about how animals defend themselves and identifying the method each little group of animals used. There are labels, Mama! Yes, says Mama smugly, but my Superdooper Big Brother hasn’t quite twigged to the advantages of being able to read yet and has to work it out from pure observation.

The Natural History Room at the Horniman

Of course, she is also approving of the way that the Horniman Museum supports understanding of the concept of evolution too. In fact, until she discovered the Darwin Museum in Moscow, the Horniman was her go to museum every time she felt he needed a top up.

Evolution of the horse at the Horniman

Attached to the natural history room is a hands on kids area, which is also very well designed – you can draw stuff, listen to bird calls and the game about identifying trees is, Mama thinks, almost unique as a button pushing opportunity which is both doable for people my age and also gets a point about classification across while you play it. Plus! In case you have been driven mad by the fact that is forbidden to fondle the extremely tactile exhibits next door, there are a couple of examples of the taxidermists’ art that you are allowed to stroke here too.

The highlight of the room is the ACTUAL LIVE ANIMALS (emphasis my Superdooper Big Brother’s). Bees, to be exact, and tiny tiny mice, both in cases small enough to make it to my Superdooper Big Brother’s own future museum, although the bees seem to be able to escape at will down a transparent tube.

That’s not all the animal action at the Horniman Museum though! There is also a reasonably priced aquarium in the basement which has a varied selection of small to medium sized fish from all around the world. And jellyfish. Also, butterflies. My Superdooper Big Brother likes the fish with the legs best. I like all of the tanks that come down to the floor, which is sadly not all of them. They do have little boxes you can carry about and stand on to get to the higher up ones though, which is almost as much fun as the fish themselves.

But. The aquarium has all but been eclipsed by the live animal walk in the grounds which arrived a year or two ago. For reasons which are inexplicable to Mama, it’s the rabbits at the Horniman Museum that are the truly fascinating furry things there. She prefers the lamas.

Lama at the Horniman

What she doesn’t realise is that as well as being a varied group with one record breakingly huge white one, the rabbits are pretty lively. No lounging around sleeping off lunch, hiding in the corner of the enclosure visitors cannot see into or staring contemplatively but unmoving into the distance for half an hour while chewing grass for the rabbits! No, it’s all nose twitching and bounding enthusiastically through the tunnels! In close up! Fabulous stuff.

The only down side is that bit opens at 12pm, so you shouldn’t plan to head straight for it when you arrive the way we always want to. Unless, of course, you get there after 12.

Still, if you are caught out, the Horniman Museum’s grounds are pretty cool, all 16 acres of them. Mama likes the spectacular view over London best, but we are more into the small play area. It is musical! There are things to bang, tap and generally make a loud noise with. It’s great!

View from the Horniman

As well as this, there’s a massive field where you can run around shouting or sit and eat a picnic, although there is also an outdoor café with tables, and even a few tables inside a small room if the weather is bad. This is apart from the proper café, which is back towards the main building. What Mama likes about that is that their overspill seating is inside a particularly splendid conservatory. It is imperative that if it is open we have a coffee break here regardless of how awash we are with beverages and sandwiches already.

Conservatory at the Horniman

Now that, as far as my Superdooper Big Brother in particular is concerned, is pretty much it for the Horniman Museum. Mama would like to spend a bit more time looking at some of the other collections they have, such as the African World one, which BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH (emphasis my Superdooper Big Brother’s, who is not one iota moved by the riot of colour, the wild variety of textiles, the oddly shaped statuettes, the mysterious objects or even the mummies inside. No obvious lion/rhino/zebra/giraffe/camel interest, you see) and especially the one about 100 years of collecting at the museum, which is what Mama describes as a fascinating look into the way that what people consider both cool and acceptable to acquire has changed over time, and what we describe as an area insufficiently full of animals or things I can touch.

In the end, in the face of our total disinterest, Mama compromises on taking us down to the music room.

The music room is pretty good not because of the thousands of instruments on display, but because of the computers. Touch screens! Woohoo! To be honest, for me touch screens can show pretty much anything and I am hooked, but these ones are particularly excellent because what they allow you to do is hear the instruments around you playing, and so Mama will allow us to muck about with them for HOURS because she find this interesting. Yes! My Sooperdooper Big Brother likes it because the sound tables are arranged in such a way that a small crowd of children can (and do) gather around one all at the same time and oooh and aaah over the sounds, and he can socialise, which is something he likes almost but not quite as much as animals.

There are also some live demonstrations of some of the instruments, or at least, we tripped over someone playing a harpsichord last time we went.

Harpsichord at the Horniman

And if you want a go yourself, there is a room with a whole bunch more of hitting, stroking, whacking and plucking opportunities, in case you didn’t get your fill outside. Mama clearly didn’t because she LOVES it in there.

Drum at the Horniman

The Horniman Museum, then, is a quirky treasure trove of all sorts of interesting dodads, and certainly well worth a visit for young people, especially as they are very welcoming towards children, even quite small children. Despite the fact that local families clearly know this and have made it a firm favourite in their going out repertoire, it is still not nearly as busy as the big Kensington Museums at any given time. It even also has what seem to be quite interesting temporary exhibitions on too, although we have never found that we have exhausted the rest of the museum with sufficient time to spare to make paying the entrance fee worth it.

So if you are planning on heading in to London some school holiday and can’t face standing in queues all day to catch a sixty second glimpse of an anamatronic T Rex and some increasingly dusty mammal models, this is a very viable alternative. And if you already live in London and haven’t made it to the Horniman Museum, whether or not you have children, what on earth is keeping you away?

More Information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about wanting to be a conductor.

Address: 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ

Opening: 10.30am to 5.30pm daily.

Admission: Free, except for the aquarium (Adults £3.50, Kids £1.50, Family £7.50) and any special exhibitions.

By bus: Routes 176, 185, 197, 356, P4 stop outside the Museum and Gardens on London Road, and there are a few more which stop close by.

By train: Forest Hill station is a five to ten uphill walk away. It’s on the Overground network (Highbury and Islington to West Croydon/ Crystal Palace) and also has trains from London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee lines) and Victoria (Victoria, Circle and District lines) as well as others from Croydon and Surrey.

By car: There is no parking at the Horniman itself, except disabled parking. The Horniman website suggests some parking spots in the area you could try but is discouraging about the whole idea of car travel as a good travel option for visiting the museum.

Stevenage Museum, Hertfordshire: why small is beautiful and Dickens was wrong.

‘The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters to shut up nothing as if it were the Mint or the Bank of England.’

– Charles Dickens on Stevenage.

Mama, who grew up in the town, is quite capable of taking the piss out of Stevenage with the best of them. It is, after all, a new town, built to relieve the pressure on the slums and bombsites of London after the second world war and designed with all the architectural and aesthetic principles the 50s and 60s could muster .

It is also the forerunner of Milton Keynes. Yes that’s right, Milton Keynes is what they built while applying the lessons learnt from their previous efforts in Stevenage. Milton Keynes is, in fact, an improvement on Stevenage. Says Mama (see what I mean?).

Stevenage Museum entrance

Stevenage Museum has a fairly large section devoted to the new town aspect. However, Stevenage also:

  • was settled even in prehistoric times
  • hosted a Roman villa yielding 2000 silver coins in an archaeological dig on a new building site a few years back. Must have made the property developers happy
  • takes its name from an Anglo Saxon phrase meaning ‘strong oak’
  • was raided by the Vikings
  • got itself mentioned in the Domesday Book
  • constructed a 12th Century church
  • endured the excitement of trying to farm Hertfordshire’s awful clay soil throughout the medieval period and sending most of it off to the main local landowner, Westminster Abbey
  • was decimated by the Great Plague
  • built a 16th century grammar school founded by a monk
  • which is now haunted (not by the monk)
  • acquired an occupied coffin and alternative tourist attraction in the rafters of a local house
  • went through a boom period when road travel really took off as one of the first major staging posts on the route up north out of London
  • saw Dick Turpin, who worked the area, escape through a secret passage in one of its pubs
  • died down a bit with the coming of the railways
  • was dissed by Pepys and Dickens
  • survived the world wars
  • produced the odd writer, formula one star, a French resistance leader, two films, a heavy metal band, the last person every to be accused of witchcraft in Britain, a brace of footballers of varying levels of fame, a handful of contestants in programmes such as the Voice, twin brother poachers, and at least one actor
  • is currently a relatively popular place for major companies to park their headquarters, being with easy reach of the capital and cheap
  • one of the first representatives of which was the Vincent motor cycle factory
  • is also (for much the same reasons) the first stop for any journalists wanting to report on likely chavy behaviour in the provinces. The Black Friday riots reporting? Was filmed in Stevenage’s Tesco.

Vincent motorbike at Stevenage Museum

Stevenage is a great town, in fact, for exemplifying in a largely undramatic way how history affects ordinary people. There are even six mysterious mounds in the centre which, as tradition demands in such cases, everybody thinks are plague pits, but actually aren’t. It really doesn’t get any more representative than that.

Shopping List at Stevenage Museum

And Stevenage Museum does not miss the opportunity to showcase the full extent of this. It’s emphatically not a museum which just glorifies Stevenage’s award winning cycle paths.

The coming of the railways at Stevenage Museum

Although perhaps there should be more about these given that Stevenage is responsible for proving that it doesn’t matter how good your bike infrastructure is, the same small number of people will still cycle to work and the rest will take the car (no really. There are studies).

Actually, Mama thinks that if they wanted more people to cycle they shouldn’t have made Stevenage so easy to drive around. As long as you like roundabouts. You can do 40 mph right through the centre, round the edges and then all the way back again along arterial roads! Mama, who always drives in Stevenage immediately after having had to slog across the middle of London by car, really appreciates this sort of thing. And the ample reasonably priced parking.

Ahem. Where were we?

Medieval house building at Stevenage Museum

Stevenage Museum also understands that the people who will be most interested in what it has to say are those living in the town and to keep them coming back you need to offer a wealth of different activities so you can never feel that you have definitively ‘done’ it.

Back when Mama was a girl (a looooooooong long time ago), this was mostly achieved via a vast and ever changing number of paper scavenger trails. Stevenage Museum still has these, but they have also added an extensive and very varied selection of extra button pushing and other interactive opportunities sprinkled around the exhibits in addition. We certainly didn’t have time for half of these in one visit.

Coin rubbing at Stevenage Museum

Of the ones we partook of, my Fantastic Big Brother particularly enjoyed the multi-part audio recordings of a modern day Stevenage boy who travels back in time and meets an equally ordinary child from the past. A particularly nice touch was how each episode involved things from the display cases nearby.

Mama, on the other hand, was thrilled to find a board where you can weigh up the arguments for and against building a New Town.

New town debate at Stevenage Museum

I preferred the full-sized 1950s play kitchen.

1950s kitchen at Stevenage Museum

And we all agreed the hats you could try on from each era were beyond cool.

Audio trail at Stevenage Museum

All in all, Stevenage Museum is probably not somewhere you will ever make a trip to specially unless you are enjoying a stay in Stevenage or the surrounding area and have some time to kill. Although when Mama found out about their excellent and very reasonable birthday party deals, with four different historical themes to choose from and food included, she did briefly consider hiring transportation and shipping all our little friends out there this year.

But if you are in the area permanently and you haven’t been then it’s high time you went, and I recommend you put it on your list of regular wet weather afternoon hangouts to boot.

More information

Stevenage Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about concrete.

Address: St George’s Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1XX

Opening: Wednesday to Friday 10am – 4.30pm. Saturdays 10am – 5pm

Admission: Free.

By car: Stevenage is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). There is extensive parking in the town centre car parks, especially the multi-story carpark on the other side of the road. Use one of Stevenage’s iconic underpasses to reach the museum.

By bus: The SB6 is the route that gets the closest to the museum, but all buses will stop at the bus station, which is on the other side of the first totally pedestrianised town centre in the UK to the museum, about a ten minute walk away.

Getting to Stevenage by bus is now much harder than previously, after the cancellation of the 797 service from London.

By train: The train station is likewise on the other side of the town centre.  There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.

Pin for later?

Stevenage Museum is an excellent example of a small local museum going out of its way to engage its visitors.

Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Polytechnic Museum entrance

The Polytechnic Museum is Moscow’s premier science, engineering and technology museum.

It’s currently closed for a total refurbishment.

Luckily it has found a temporary home in one of the large pavilions in the exhibition park VDNKh. Mama heard was particularly chock full of interactive aspects. Clearly we had to check it out.

The pavilion is rocking a sort of ornate classical look, but once you get inside you are in a dim mysterious world of technological goodies gleaming in the spotlights of all the different ways artificial light can illuminate.

Polytechnic museum pavilion, ornate details

We first came to a stop in front of a large TV screen showing a life size image of a scientist pottering about his laboratory.

Then he started to talk to us! In Russian, but we were invited (in English) to hold our hands up, in which case he switches to English. I know this because Mama immediately did. The hologram goes on to give you a little overview of the section you are standing in, with options at the end for you to ask him to explain more about some of the individual exhibits.

It’s FAB.

And repeated for all of the different areas and themes. Mama enjoyed the stern Soviet era babushka physicist and the floaty cosmonaut but she was particularly impressed by the splendidly sneery rapper who introduced the display on genetic engineering, although the translation really doesn’t do him justice.

Holograms at Polytechnic Museum

She was a bit dismayed thereafter though to find that the in depth explanatory labels, also helpfully provided in British English as well as Russian if you stab at the Union Jack in the corner of the screen, were a good few notches above her level of understanding of how physics works. And sadly this was not due to dodgy translations.

But Mama is soothed by the suspicion that the designers are being very clever and providing enhancements pitched at different levels of understanding or different levels of interest, rather than make every interactive dodad work for the under tens.

Fair enough.

So as well as the labels for the serious enthusiast, the museum has comfy armchairs which murmur soothingly in your ear about inventions and inventors for the senior citizens, child-height tablets showing short visual cartoon clips explaining things to the next generation, and an array of frankly bonkers artistic interpretations of science for the humanities graduates.

Still, Mama thought the bit that worked best for her was the section on teraforming on Mars because she actually came away knowing more about the subject than she did when she started, and interestingly, this was arguably the most traditional of the displays, with a series of dioramas doing most of the work.

Or perhaps she was just most interested in this. Too much Heinlein in her formative years.

Which is not to say that she didn’t enjoy the modern art. The one with the bank of TV screens of performance artists interpreting science was hysterical if almost completely baffling, and we were all delighted by the installation which converted waterflow into binary digits for, as far as we could tell, no real reason whatsoever.

Science is Art at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

We also enjoyed lighting things up, making electricity spark, smearing our fingers all over the many many touchscreens, the experiment to make water spike into different shapes by the power of hand held or knob-twiddled magnets, and especially the place where we were all able to lay flat on some cushions and contemplate the universe swirling on the ceiling above us.

Mama’s main reservation is that some of the whiz bang squeeeeeeee completely overshadows the actual exhibits rather than enhancing our appreciation of them, although I think she is being a bit of a killjoy there. It would also have been nice if more of the buttons were actually working. Mama in particular was disappointed she didn’t get to launch a spaceship.

She thought the doors which invited us to guess what invention had been inspired by someone observing nature closely were particularly good value, though, being comprehensible, touchy feely and, specially for my Amazing Big Brother, involving copious animal interest.

Nature-inspired science at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

The actual name of the whole exhibition is ‘Russia did it herself’ which is both disconcertingly flag wavy and also oddly defensive, Mama says. This might be because, as most of the actual stuff is from upwards of 40 years ago, you do get the impression that Russia’s glory age of scientific exploration is somewhat in the past.

But then, what glory days they were!

Clearly the pinnacle is the TV with the water filled goldfish aquarium as a standard attachment. Papa says his Papa used to have one of these at work. Once again I am persuaded that this Soviet Union must have been a paradise. How great must that have been?

TV with fishbowl lense at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Mama’s highlight was the simulation of a nuclear bomb exploding. Now, some people might feel that this is a monumentally tasteless bit of button pushing fun, and Mama admits that there is some merit in this although, she also points out, the Russians have never actually used a nuclear explosion to incinerate thousands and condemn survivors to a particularly nasty lingering death, unlike some people.

Perhaps you should assume that what the designers are trying to do is instill awe in the visitor at the sheer scale of the power involved. And if you do, then by means of clever white out lighting, a super strong blast from some hidden fans, and a truly impressive noise which is not only loud but so low it vibrates right through you it really does the job.

If it helps, you have actually ask for the exhibit to be turned on. It gets a bit much otherwise, the docent said, and lessens the impact.

Guess who did the asking in our party?

Nuclear bomb at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

It’s not that the museum ignores the destructive uses of this invention. Visitors are invited to reflect on what happens when science is harnesssed for evil purposes while adding to an ever-growing mobile composed of origami doves. Not sure it entirely makes up for it though. Mama clearly was more interested the BIG BADDA BOOM than contemplating the horror, and, again, it is perhaps a tad sophisticated for us kids, especially my Amazing Big Brother, who has the paper folding skills of a jellyfish.

Basically, if the aim is to make people generally excited about how utterly cool science, engineering and technology can be, Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum scores a resounding win. And Mama thinks it’s pretty exciting that given a temporary space to play with, the Polytechnic Museum has decided to have fun and accelerate right out beyond the edge of what an established museum might attempt with its displays.

So as a teaser for the eventual reopening of the main building it is very successful. She will certainly have us first in the queue to find out. And we will be bouncing up and down beside her.

More information

The Polytechnic Museum’s website (in some English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Andrei Sakharov, the USSR, the H bomb and human rights.

Address: VDNKh, Pavilion #26.

Opening: Tues – Fri, 10am to 8pm. Sat – Sun, 10am to 9pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Prices: Adults – 300 rubles (£4.50), schoolchildren – 150 rubles (£2.30), under 7s – free.

By metro: From VDNKh (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNKh exhibition park. The Polytechnic Pavilion is easy to find, being on the left of the full size space rocket.

The State Darwin Museum, Moscow

It is fair to say that there is probably nowhere else in the world that has so many stuffed animals on display as the State Darwin Museum in Moscow.

Stuffed animals at the State Darwin Museum Moscow
Now what do these have in common? Anyone? You at the back there?

Three large floors of them, plus more in the building next door. You’ve got dioramas of animals in their native habitats; groups of endangered or extinct animals; scenes of animals being torn apart by other animals, and other… educational… interactions; displays of a bewildering number of different types of squirrel; cases showing a large selection of dog breeds in order of size and likely ferociousness, from wolves down to those little yippy ones you keep in handbags; expositions on the topic of genetics punctuated by the stuffed remains of generations of guinea pigs; collections of all the birds who have the hooked meat-ripping beaks, the pointy fish-spearing beaks, the bijou seed-winkling beaks, the big round night eyes, the really bright feathers, and so on and so forth.

Basically, all the possible combinations of stuffed animals you could imagine, the State Darwin Museum in Moscow has ‘em, and a few more to boot.

Stuffed dogs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
That’s a lot of stuffed dogs.

Which should make it both one of the creepier and, after the first room or so, one of the more boring museums in the world, but it isn’t. In fact The State Darwin Museum in Moscow is now Mama’s new favourite museum, both on a personal level and on the basis of somewhere good to take us kids.

And we’re pretty keen on it too. Here’s why.

Firstly, it’s entirely devoted to explaining the theory of evolution. This is both interesting and, in Mama’s opinion, important. Interesting because Mama is the sort of person who likes an in depth look at things, and that’s not something that many museums have the luxury of giving. Important because she sends Stupendous Big Brother to not one but two church schools in not one but two different languages. She feels the need to nip any odd notions about the development of life on earth that he might pick up, because, say, his (English) teacher has told him that that’s what he believes, firmly in the bud.

Hitherto Mama has been using the children’s non-fiction books aimed at explaining such things, assisted only by the odd half a room display in the NHM. This makes it uphill work because, well, the biblical tale is just a better story than one which really requires you to grasp the concept of deep time and generations upon generations of living organisms first. We have difficulty understanding that Mama had a life before we appeared, so it’s not an idea that just takes a few minutes to sink in.

But now she can (repeatedly) take us to a museum which exhaustively covers all the main points in a memorably visual manner. So well done is it, in fact, that Mama, whose Russian is not up to long scientific explanatory placards and who is a wishy washy humanities graduate to boot, had no difficulty working out what the point of each section is. This, she thinks, bodes well for getting it across to kids. She and my Stupendous Big Brother certainly had a number of what looked like spirited and interested discussions while looking at the exhibits.

If the stuffed animals aren’t enough, there’s also a vast collection of animal paintings on display. Mama is dubious about the artistic value of these, but my Stupendous Big Brother was very taken with them indeed.

Stuffed big cats at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
Cats and their art.

I simply basked in the fact that most of them were entirely visible to someone of my height, nobody told me off for leaning on the glass and that there was plenty of room to gambol around looking for the horses.

Horse evolution at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
Horses through the ages!

It’s not that there’s no English, mind. Each room has a paragraph or two in that to get you oriented, should you feel the need.

Another thing Mama thought was particularly well done about the State Darwin Museum were the interactive touches that have been added to the basic glass cases, and I have to say that I heartily concur. They seem to have made a real effort to do things which bring the displays to life, and really add to what you are seeing, rather than distract or, worse, detract from them.

Mama thought, for example, that the little video screens showing clips of the animals in action in the section all about animals and their native habitats was inspired, and not just because they had put them at kids’ eye height. I liked the buttons you could press throughout the galleries to hear the sounds that different animals make. And the animal jigsaws, especially the ones where the aim was to focus on the massive differences in feet, mouths or limbs between different types of animals. And the fact that all of these things had boxes next to them to make them easy for me to reach if they weren’t at my height already. Stupendous Big Brother liked the computer games. Name that animal! Match the animal to their tracks! Match the animal to their habitat!

Interactive exhibit at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
“Who did this?”

There’s also a children’s play area for the under 7s. It has nothing whatsoever to do with animals, Darwin or evolution – it’s based on those big soft shapes you can move around, stack, build a fort out of and throw at each other, but that in itself provides a nice break and refreshes you for a final push round the museum.

The two interactive show stoppers, though, are on the top floor. The first is the case containing the roaring, mooing, stomping and flapping animated dinosaurs, which are switched on on the hour every hour. Otherwise, the dinosaur section is not extensive (and, surprisingly, the models seem to be made of some kind of plastic rather than stuffed), but this is pretty jolly cool to make up for it.

Dinosaurs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
Dinosaur rrrrooooaaaaarrrr!

By far the most exciting thing we have EVER come across in a museum, however, is the giant TV screen on the wall.

At first you just stand on the designated spot and admire your filmed self staring up at a giant TV screen on the wall in the midst of a bunch of glass cases full of stuffed animals. And then, suddenly, one of those animals COMES TO LIFE. And! Meanders over to where your screen self is and if you keep staring upwards, while reaching out, you can see yourself touching and interacting with the animals on the screen. It is FABULOUS. We played with lemurs, a huge tortoise, a deer, a lion, an alpaca, the lemurs again, and yet more lemurs (we liked the lemurs). Cannot recommend it highly enough. The only way it could have been better was if we’d had the actual animals with us instead.

Also on this floor is the section devoted to human evolution. Mama, once again, would like to congratulate the curators for their sheer genius in the placement of this. Nothing like making people walk through the crushing evidence in the two floors below before you hit them with the ‘difficult’ monkey man aspect.

Hell with that, I say. It’s the evolution of horses bit you should be checking out. Radical!

Early man at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
That man is NAKED Mama!

Anyway, you might be thinking that it is time to go about now, but that would mean you miss all the stuff in the other building, which is connected to this one via a tunnel in the basement. They’ve got a whole bunch of experiences there – a planetarium, various 3D, 4D and, I dunno, 5D booths, and some kind of dinosaur labyrinth discovery trail which looked very exciting, all of which Mama declined to pay extra for on this occasion, although she hasn’t ruled it out for subsequent trips as it wasn’t, she says, outrageously expensive.

But for us it was still worth trekking over for the live insects, including giant cockroaches, grasshoppers, colourful beetles, butterflies, and for the variety huge hairy spiders.

I don’t know how it is, but when Stupendous Big Brother is faced with a zooful of animals, he insists on charging round at top speed, never spending too long in front of one cage. I think he is worried about missing out on something. But give him an attraction with a more limited number of creatures and he will spend hours in front of each one, especially if they fly. Luckily, I was also quite interested, and when I wasn’t they had a particularly nifty touch screen picture puzzle thing, which only needed Mama to commandeered a chair to be fully accessible. We also skipped the rooms on the history of natural history through sheer lack of time.

We didn’t miss out on refreshments though. The State Darwin Museum has not one but two cafes, both of which were open. The first is more the sort of place you can buy a hot lunch, although Mama was also delighted that they let, nay, dragged us in and offered us a spare table when they saw us eating in the (perfectly comfortable actually and opposite a LIVE FISH TANK) seating area outside instead. The second is more of a cakes and coffee affair, and dedicated to that famous naturalist, Janis Joplin. Mmmmmmm, cake, say I. Mmmmmmmm, coffee, says Mama. If, for some reason, you are not up for the ones in the museum, there are plenty of other cafes on the walk back to the metro.

So we had a good time. Mama’s favourite bit? The fact that in the whole museum there is not one mention of creationism. No pandering to the existence of this anti-science nonsense whatsoever. It’s great. She says. I think what edged it for my Stupendous Big Brother and I though was that the shop has a decent selection of reasonably priced plastic animal toys, and Mama was so delighted by our day that she let loose with the rubles and bought us some.

The only downside Mama can possibly think of is that you might feel squeamish about the sheer numbers of animals that have, at some point, been killed to furnish the displays. Mama offers up the opinion that, well, what’s done is done, and at least the museum is making use of the taxidermy it has inherited in a positive and educational manner. Arguably, too, it is a more ethical day out that some of the live animal entertainments she has seen in Moscow and the UK, especially the ones that are run for profit. No matter how well looked after the captive beasts on display are. But as ever, that is a decision you will have to make for yourself.

All in all, this is clearly a museum that has its eye firmly on the patronage of the under 7s, as well as being extremely appealing to the over 40s. There is even a nappy changing table in the toilets. As a result it was busyish, but still not rammed in the way that such a place would be in, say, London in the summer holidays. Things might be different in winter, of course, when it’s less attractive to be outside, and people have not packed their young off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration.

We may well find out, because Mama plans to take us here pretty much whenever we visit Moscow from now onwards. She thinks you should go too if you are ever in town. She thinks, in fact, that all school children everywhere should be flown in specially whenever they get to the relevant section of the science curriculum. Best. Field trip. Evah.

Especially as, rumour has it, they let you handle the cockroaches.

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say (at great length) about evolution and creationism.

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and the last Friday of every month.

Price: 300 rubles (£5) for adults for the two buildings. 250 rubles (£4) if you just want the main exhibition area. Kids over 7 are 100 rubles (£1.50) for both buildings. A photography pass is 100 rubles.

By Metro: Akedemichiskaya (orange line). Be on the front of the train if you are heading out from the centre and leave by that exit. Turn right. Go up the right hand stairs. There should be a large sign directing you (in English as well as Russian) to take the first left. Walk up that street for about ten minutes and the museum is on your left.

By Bus/ Tram: You can get the 119 bus from Akedemichiskaya or the 14 and 39 trams from Univesitet (red line) to the stop Ulista Dimitriova Ulyanova.


The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, Moscow

I think you might have to be a bit older than me to properly appreciate why the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, devoted to the Soviet and Russian space programme, is so utterly fascinating for Mama and Papa.

Soviet space programme mural
Space! The final frontier!

Currently I am quite concerned about some of my toys. They are not here. I keep asking Mama if they are in my far far away home. She says yes and I am reassured for another ten minutes. Mama is delighted. Not, I hasten to reassure you because I am undergoing angst, but because she thinks I have understood something important about the abstract concept of place. What I say is that you get on a train for ages, a plane for ages and ages and ages, a train for ages, an underground train for ages, and then still have a short bus ride to go, you would have to be considerably dim, or perhaps, you know, two or something, not to figure it out.

But space, its vastness, its inhospitable nature and the difficulty of finding a way in and how to stay there successfully escapes me utterly. It escapes my Cosmic Big Brother a bit too really. Mama blames his fixation on animals, and also modern life. Mama, who was born a long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long time ago still remembers the excitement of some impossible new milestone being reached, and has some grasp of the sheer effort involved in reaching it. Well, you would if the height of excitement is watching snooker on a black and white TV.

Technology these days, however, is so sufficiently close to magic, that she is not convinced that we will ever quite understand what a big deal throwing a big metal object out of the Earth’s atmosphere and getting it back again in more or less one piece actually is. Mama had a jolly good stab at getting it across anyway, using up all her inconsiderable knowledge of physics and engineering in expanding on just why every. Single. One of the exhibits in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is just so damn cool. By about half way round my Cosmic Big Brother had knuckled under and was actually taking an interest.

He still liked the stuffed representations of Belka and Strelka, the two dogs who made it back, and the model space toilets best though.

Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.
Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.

What excites Mama is that the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics has exhibits related to (*cough* nearly *cough*) ALL of the great space achievements of the last seventy years in one glorious building. The Soviets and Russians don’t have to try to impress you, they just have to empty out the contents of their space programme cupboards a bit. You don’t even notice the lack of footprints on the moon. Not when you have not one but two different types of nifty *cough* unmanned *cough* landing craft in front of you instead.

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics main gallery
Shiny shiny shiny

In addition, the four first flights are fully documented, there are displays devoted to engineering genius, insights into training methods, details of life on board a space ship, dioramas of dramatic landings, examples of probes to near satellites and the ones further away, and lots of stuff from both space stations, which in the case of MIR is also available in a walk through mock-up. Look out for the aforementioned toilets, the upright sleeping arrangements, the computer stuck to the ceiling, and the fish tank.

The museum is visually stunning too. The rockets, satellites, landing crafts and probes which litter the place are design objects d’art in their own right, Mama reckons, and exceedingly shiny to boot. The first room you enter has lighting designed to simulate a particularly impressive starry starry night, which makes all the metal objects twinkle and the marble floor gleam. The main exhibition area has a space mural painted all over the ceiling, and with it’s ground floor overlooked by a mezzanine level of aluminum walkways Mama almost felt that at any moment she would be ushered into a spacecraft and countdown would commence. Thrilling!

First gallery in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Shiny shiny shiny

So it’s a fun space for an exploring pre-schooler to roam around, even if the stuff on display is just so much pretty background. They also have puffy armchairs at strategic points for you to dive headfirst onto so you can lie and stare at the planets whirling by overhead. And of course I was thrilled by the interactive touch screens. No idea what they were showing me, but wheeee! Stab stab stab stab stab. My Cosmic Big Brother liked the one which allowed you to virtually explore Mir, and Mama  played around with the one where you could look up international participants in the programme. Yay! Britain had one! Go the UK! Of course, the screens were so far up the walls that Mama or Papa had to heft me high to reach them, but my parents need the exercise so it’s fine.

Just don’t touch the rope barriers. There are many many babushka docents hovering and they will come and tell you not to. This is a shame, because the rope barriers are splendidly thick, hugely velvety and a rich blue colour. My Cosmic Big Brother was totally unable to stop himself from stroking and I was constantly drawn to unhook them, despite the constant reminders. You are also not allowed to put your hands on the glass cases whilst gawping at the things inside. Which you really would think we would have grasped by the end. On the upside, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is not inclined to trust its visitors with important objects in too close a reach, so only the fixtures and fittings were ever in danger from our questing little hands. This sort of thing makes Mama relaxed and happy in a museum.

What doesn’t make Mama happy is trying to take surreptitious photos. You are allowed to take pictures, but only if you buy a special photography pass. Mama did not realise she might really really want to until she was too far in, a mistake as Mama is an indifferent photographer at the best of times, and that is not while trying to press the button whilst hiding behind Papa and pretending to examine some moon rocks. Do not repeat her mistake. Buy the pass. You will want to take a lot of snaps.

Other things Mama found interesting: the wall of cosmonauts, which is constantly updated – the latest went up for his first mission in March of this year. The film loop of footage surrounding the first flights – clips of take offs, engineers fiddling with equipment, and the great dog/human cosmonauts themselves waving, of course, but also shots of ordinary people’s reactions to the news. The personal touch to the commemoration of the great engineering brains – not just their medals or items from their professional lives, but photos of them relaxing at the datcha and their favourite chess board and so on. The examples of the cosmonauts’ food – especially the nifty fridge, with all the fruit and vegetables tied carefully down. And the large numbers of oil paintings apparently done by the second man in space, who seems to have been particularly into Shishkinesque landscapes. It’s nice to know that even cosmonauts have hobbies.

Engineering genius on display
Engineering genius on display

The only slight niggles Mama would like to share are that the cafe was closed and the shop extremely abbreviated. The lack of a cafe was particularly annoying as there also isn’t even an ice cream cart anywhere near the museum following the city authority’s recent rather over enthusiastic crack down on all manner of street food vendors. And we all know how Mama gets when she doesn’t have regular infusions of coffee.

The museum does have the best entrance marker of any museum evah. A sliver rocket soaring on a silver smoke trail elegantly high into the sky. At its base are two very Soviet murals whose supermen (and dogs) marching gloriously forward into the heavens does not, in this instance, look at all overdone. Mama has been admiring it for years, but never made it into the museum. Do not dither in the same way yourself. If you are in Moscow, you must go and see the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. It’s important, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it’s really really well air-conditioned.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

More information

The museum website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the first manned space flight.

Address: 129515, Москва, пр. Мира, д.111

Opening: 11am to 7pm every day except Monday, when is is closed, and Thursday, when it is open until 9pm.

Price: Adults – 200 rubles (about £2), Children over seven (and other concessions) – 50 rubles (50p), Children under seven – free. The photography pass (which you MUST get) is 200 rubles (about £2).

By Metro: The nearest station is ВДНХ (VDNKh) on the orange line. It is about 100m to the museum entrance past a couple of cruise missiles if you come out of the exit near the front of the train (assuming you are travelling out from the centre), but if you choose the exit past the rear carriages, you can walk up a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cosmonaut-planted trees, busts of famous space-programme-related people, stars commemorating important cosmic milestones, and a damn big solar system sculpture-come-sundial. Luckily, whatever you choose, you can’t miss the museum. Head for the rocket.

By other means: Don’t be silly.

Wander Mum

RAF Museum, Hendon, London

Every now and again Mama realises that there are places to go in London which do not have anything to do with animals. One of those is the RAF Museum in Hendon, which is full of planes.

The Spitfire outside the RAF Museum, Hendon
Copyright Alan Wilson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It also has a really big car park. I think that if Mama found out somewhere had a really big car park in London she would visit it no matter what it contained. Admittedly, the one at the RAF Museum is not free, but neither does it require lots of the shiny metal things Mama hordes so assiduously, and the museum itself does not charge for entry, so Mama doesn’t seem to mind. If you do, there is a limited amount of free parking on some of the streets round about.

Or, y’know, public transport, which might be a better option if, unlike us, you are not going on a Sunday. We have only ever visited on a Sunday. If you have to travel all across London by car, reasonably early on Sunday morning is the time to do it. Mama says.

The first section is the one with the older flying contraptions. You can walk around the gallery at the top and observe the ones suspended from the ceiling but that’s not the main point of the place.

No, the real attraction is that they have these REALLY AMAZING interactive touch screen information points, which I could play with forever. Press this, see the picture change, press that, see the picture change, press this, the picture rotates, press that and the picture stops rotating, press this, see the picture change, press that, hey Mama, pick me up again! I wanna press the buttons! Yes, there is a design flaw. You have to be a bit bigger than I was the first time we went to reach it all easily. But I’m getting there now! Next time it will be impossible to tear me away!

The ground floor allows you to get up close and personal with the plane undercarriages. Not that up close, though, although the rope barriers guarding them are rather lackadaisical. Someone really needs to do something about them. They seem to keep out the adults well enough but they are very easy for toddlers to climb over or slide under. Us small people can have a lot of fun flaunting our amazing ability by cavorting just out of grabbing reach underneath the planes.

However, I am not entirely convinced all of the machines displayed in this area would really fly. The looked quite flimsy. We discussed our favourite. The consensus of opinion was that we liked the one with the checked looking pattern in purple and green. Because it was pretty. Mama thought about pointing out the paintwork might have another purpose, but she suspected she might be overruled.

Then we went into a new hanger. The planes here were much bigger and rather less colourful. Even our adults seemed overawed by the sheer hugeness of some of them. It took quite a while to go round and see all of them, but that was just fine. There was plenty of room to run about, so it wasn’t necessary to find our own fun by hurdling the barriers too often. Also, because we were there quite early, we were allowed a moderate amount of overexcited shrieking. But even as it started to fill up later in the day, it never got really crowded.

The very very big Lancaster Bomber at the RAF Museum, Hendon
Copyright Michael Reeve (CC BY-SA 3.0 and GNU FDL)

Popular flying machines included the maaaahooooosive great back monster aeroplane for dropping things out of, an elegant varnished wooden one with brass fittings that looked like it should be a yacht for discerning rich people, the huge plane with raked back wings and scooped out with the TV inside showing how impressive a whole bunch of them looked taking off, the plane with its nose painted to look like a shark, which my Incredible Big Brother dragged us over to see specially, the one which had spent a great deal of time at the bottom of a lake and whose metalwork had gone an intriguing colour as a result, and ALL the toy ones in the shop, which is cunningly situated at the exit.

Mama avoided it by trekking us back the way we had come and going out the entrance the next time we came. Spoilsport.

If you start to get too rowdy, the grown ups can take you to where there is an extensive indoor play area at the back, with a whole bunch of child sized cockpits you can pretend to drive, various machines which have a wide range of button pressing or handle turning opportunities, some flying ping pong balls, the opportunity to fire a parcel out of a plane at a target, a bit of shape sorting, and other such things. We were happy. Mama seemed a bit disappointed that neither me nor my Superlative Big Brother came up to a line on the wall next to a large box which kept flinging itself around every time someone gave it some of the round metal things. Mama says it is a flight simulator, and she is clearly determined that one of us will want to have a go on it someday. I am not so sure.

There are also tables for eating your lunch on, and a cafe too not far away, right in the middle of some helicopters. Mama also discovered that you can get coffee in a takeaway cup to bring over to the picnic area, so basically, the refreshment options are pretty good all round.

In fact, the only problem with the play space is that it has two exits. Mama really wishes that in dedicated play areas she could let us go out of sight and relax with her coffee safe in the knowledge that we haven’t escaped the child-friendly section and are being sticky all over delicate paintwork somewhere else. But then I fell out of a plane on my head the time she tried being laid back, so hey. It’s probably best if she follows us around closely at all times anyway.

Anyway. The RAF Museum London. if your children like planes the way we like animals and horses, this place is an absolute must visit. But even if they don’t, a bunch of grounded aircraft are a lot more interesting than you might think. In addition, it’s certainly not as busy as the big central London museums, but there is just as much floor space to get some much needed exercise. The fact that the play area is indoors makes it just about perfect for any inclement day.

And don’t forget about the car park!

PS: Mama cannot find any photos of the RAF Museum. Either she is having a senior moment, which is possible as she is really really old, or the museum is SO GOOD that she forgot to take any. Whichever it is, we will be forced to return for pictures. Wheeeeee!

Image credits

The Spitfire: Copyright Alan Wilson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Lancaster Bomber: Copyright Michael Reeve ( CC BY-SA 3.0 and GNU FDL)

More Information

The RAF Museum, Hendon’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Supermarine Spitfire aircraft.

Address: Grahame Park Way, London. Use the postcode NW9 5QW for your satnav.

Opening: 10am -6pm.

Price: Free (apart from the car park).

By tube: Colindale (Northern Line). Do NOT get off at Hendon Central.

By train: Mill Hill Broadway (15 mins walk) on the Luton/Kings Cross/Thameslink line.

By bus: The 303 bus goes directly past.

By car: Yes! You can go by car! There’s a car park! It costs up to £4 but it is TOTALLY WORTH IT (says Mama).

The Natural History Museum, London

The Natural History Museum is my Brilliant Big Brother’s choice. He is very very keen on animals. And dinosaurs. So regular visits here are a bit of an inevitability.

The Natural History Museum from the outside
Dino world, here we come!

The problem with this, from Mama’s point of view, is that my Brilliant Big Brother is actually interested in the exhibits. He wants to stop, and look at them, and discuss them. I, however, am not. I want to run around and find something random to fixate on, like a rope barrier (oooooh) or a leaflet holder (aaaaaah).  FIRE EXTINGUISHERS! IT DOESN’T GET BETTER THAN FIRE EXTINGUISHERS!!!

This means that Mama is constantly either having to coral me in the pushchair or drag my Brilliant Big Brother away from a stuffed swan, plaster of Paris crocodile or fossilised triceratops. Both of us end up feeling that Mama is an unreasonable old whatsit and are not afraid of making our opinions on this subject known.

Still, we usually manage to spend a certain amount of time in the usually exceptionally crowded bird hall, where Mama, the career teacher, simply cannot restrain herself and insists on setting my Brilliant Big Brother questions designed to better his understanding of how animals work. ‘Which birds,’ she is wont to ask, ‘eat meat? How do you know? Lookatthebeaklookatthebeak’ This is sometimes successful, sometimes not, and sometimes my Brilliant Big Brother silences her by keeping up a running commentary of random factoids about the lives and loves of the feathered exhibits himself.

Stuffed dodos in a display case

My Brilliant Big Brother, you see, pays close attention to nature programmes. Mama, on the other hand, thinks that nature in its entirety goes ‘they have sex and then something eats the really cute baby’ and that this is especially true if you watch David Attenborough’s Planet series. Except that in the programmes it is done to ominous music. Nature missing a trick there. Mama, basically, finds the animal world both boringly predictable and excruciatingly traumatic. My Brilliant Big Brother does not.  Therefore, in a fauna fact-off, my Brilliant Big Brother always wins.

A blue whale and other animals at the Natural History Museum
That’s not a *real* whale, you know.

It should come as no surprise then that the mammal room is also popular. My Brilliant Big Brother finds the elephants in various stages of evolution fascinating. Similarly the fish corridor. With added crocodiles! And the bit with the giant sloth (it’s GIANT!). And the bug exhibition. With your actual leaf cutter ants carrying your actual leaves. Although he also thinks the case explaining the difference between centipedes and millipedes (not as obvious as you might think, Mama says) pretty essential. And… well, let’s just say that all the bits with any kind of animal are equally as thrilling to my Brilliant Big Brother, and, unfortunately, equally as packed with other nature obsessed big children and so equally as unfriendly to wide-roaming toddlers as each other.

Giant prehistoric sloth at the Natural History Museum

Except the dinosaur exhibition, which is even more so. In fact, Mama recommends that the Natural History Museum should be avoided at weekends*, during school holidays and especially in half term, when everybody with children within reach of London decides to visit in the space of one week. Not only are there lengthy queues to get into the place, but the entire entrance hall is given over to the hour-long line of people waiting to go and see the animatronic T-Rex, with only the admittedly impressive Gothic detailing and the huge, iconic diplodocus skeleton to entertain them.

Entrance hall and Diplodocus skeleton at the Natural History Museum
An unusually empty day at the Natural History Museum.

Actually it can be quite entertaining. They’ve rigged the massive plant eater so that you can light it up different colours and even make it roar. But only if you pay an extortionate sum of money, which Mama, well, Mama doesn’t. Of course, if you should make a half term visit there will be many many desperate parents, and so the roar gets played quite often anyway. Still, this does not compensate you, in Mama’s opinion, for the wait, especially when it is followed by the news that the lift to the walkway you have to use in order to reach model dino heaven is out of order and no, you cannot just abandon the pushchair here and come back for it later.

Gothic details at the Natural History Museum
Cool, eh?

Of course, the T-Rex is almost worth it in Mama’s opinion and TOTALLY worth it in my Brilliant Big Brother’s, which is why we all keep coming back and back. I am less convinced, being much of the opinion of my Brilliant Big Brother on his first visit (< wobbly voice > “Teef, Mama, TEEF!”< /wobbly voice>), but I am generally overruled.

The animatronic T-Rex at the Natural History Museum

There’s also a whole other bunch of galleries about the earth, the environment and, I dunno, plants and such, but we only go there when my Brilliant Big Brother thinks they might have hidden a few more animals in them or when Mama is trying to make me fall asleep. Not even being in a real earthquake or making your own clouds really compensates for the lack of furry/scaly action. Although the rocks room is a hit. To Mama one bit of quartz looks very much like another, but she says Granny, the geologist, should be proud that her grandson can spend hours and hours and hours in there getting Mama to read the captions (“Quartz. Quartz with iron. Quartz with copper. Quartz quartz. Quartz with gold. Oooh. Quartz.”) and I am happy because it is really quiet up there and Mama let’s me play hide and seek round the quartz cases. Granny must really like quartz. I wonder what she does with it?

The quartz room at the Natural History Museum

And so to the coffee, or not because Mama rarely stops for refreshments inside. The cafes are too open plan and busy for someone with over-stimulated children who will probably run off in different directions just as she has taken her first sip of the warm brown drink she seems to like to much. If you must go, the one in the Darwin Centre is probably the quietest. There’s also a restaurant, but that is particularly expensive and even a balloon per child cannot make up for that. Says Mama. The best option on rainy days is the basement, where there is a vast lunch room for school parties and other picnickers. It even has a small coffee shop at one end! On better days, there is a nice bit of grass outside and it even has its own snack kiosk and, in summer, a carousel. In good weather there is also a stall selling ice-creams at the entrance to the nature garden, a small wildlife preserve of overgrown foliage, twisty pathways and water features, with which my Brilliant Big Brother and I like to end our visit to the museum. You aren’t supposed to picnic there though.

Stone monkey climbing the walls of the Natural History Museum
Awww. Cute, innit?

Anyway. The Natural History Museum is an essential on any list of places to visit in London for children of all ages. Mama will just have to continue sucking up the drawbacks and start bribing me with the promise of dinosaur toys, because we will be regulars here for some time to come.

*Except for the last half term before the summer holidays. Mama reckons people are saving it up. Go then, if you are trapped by school. Unlike me. Nyahnyahnyahnyahnya.

More Information

The Natural History Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about dodos – an extinct bird.

Address: Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

Opening: 10.00 – 18.00 every day.

Admission: Free

By Tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). 

By Bus: The 360 stops on Exhibition Road. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington.  

By Car: *sigh*

The Science Museum, London

We go to the Science Museum a lot. This is because Mama finds herself in South Kensington with me waiting around for my Fabulous Big Brother to be culturally and linguistically indoctrinated at his Russian school quite often. So when it’s raining she often takes me here on the grounds that some of the rooms are really big and there is plenty of space to run around. Of course, sometimes she takes me here when it is sunny too. This is because if you want to go to the Science Museum on a weekend, you can avoid some of the worst of the crowds by picking a time when everybody else will have gone to the park. Sadly there isn’t much you can do about the crush in the shorter school holidays, but luckily the children will probably still enjoy themselves. Mama says, resignedly.

Bicycles hanging over the entrance to the Science Museum
Welcome to the Science Museum, give us all your money now.

I really like the Space bit. It’s dark and mysterious with odd things dangling from the ceiling. One of the first things both my Fabulous Big Brother as a toddler and now I make a beeline for is the diorama on the left, mainly because it has that rarest of things, a step up specially so we of under average height can actually see it. Mama tells me it shows the launch of one of the first rockets EVAH but also that it is basically one big bomb. She is therefore a bit miffed that she cannot embellish our interest further with a nice improving story. Still, I also like the big revolving ball hanging, apparently, freely in thin air, where they project what Mama calls satellite images of different aspects of terrestrial life as seen from space. Mama is quite entranced by the one where everybody switches their lights on, one by one, all over the world. I just want to know how I can get it down and throw it around.

The moon landing vehicle at the Science Museum
Check out the big US flag!

Sometimes, usually when Papa is with us, we play hunt the Russian references. This is surprisingly difficult given that, Papa rants, the Russians did almost everything in space first. Except land on the moon, Papa! Interestingly, the moon landing apparatus happens to be one of the focal points of the whole room. What can you do? That big car is shiny shiny shiny!

The Science Museum display about Yuri Gagarin
The extensive first man in space display at the Science Museum.

We started spending less time in the room with all the cars, trains, boats and weaving looms after I learned to walk. Mama was told off once too often for letting me touch the machinery. This is a great shame as I love machinery, and the plinths are at a very inviting height for exploring toddlers. They have even added a bit of exciting challenge in the flimsy string barrier, a challenge I was more than happy to take up. I recommend sliding underneath. Or flinging yourself wildly over the top.

The Making the Modern World gallery at the Science Museum
That is NOT the first steam engine.

Nowadays  I make sure to rush Mama past it, partly because I know about the play area on the other side and partly because if I stand still for long enough, Mama will yet again tell me how although the centrally placed Rocket is the most famous early steam locomotive, it wasn’t the first. The first one is over there, shoved out of the way in a corner. Which is, in its way, also significant. But then this will cause her to segue into a rant about how, whilst she, the early modern specialist with time to spare as she waited to see if I would get to touch the early Ford before the guard rugby tackled me or not, has given considerable thought to why each of the items in the room is there, she does feel that there could be a little more focus in the room itself as to the importance of the items on display and their placement.

This is why Mama needs me and my Fabulous Big Brother around to entertain her in such places, I say. Also, when would she have the chance to read explanatory placarding these days anyway?

Sometimes Mama takes me upstairs, especially when the Museum has a temporary exhibition on. She may be sniffy about what the website calls the ‘objects rich’ galleries (hahahaha. Oh deary me. Mama says) but some of the Science Museum’s exhibits in passing are as whacky as anything you find in the Tate Modern and considerably more grounded in something inherently interesting. Mama thinks.

Her favourite of recent times was the anatomy of an orchestra they put on, which led to strains of the Planet Suite by Holst randomly echoing round the ground floor. Mama enjoyed very much the experience of going through different ‘rooms’ and sitting with different sections of the orchestra, listening to the music from each instrument’s point of view. There were also some interactive elements, but Mama couldn’t get the hang of conducting and so we went and sat in the bass section so Mama could relive her youth playing in the coolest section of the orchestra. Until the school party in the percussion section got their hands on the drums, symbols, more drums, more symbols and a few more drums and really let fly right in the middle of the war section, startling me something wicked. Oh how I cried and clung to Mama as she hastened out of there, her hands over my ears. Still, also an authentic experience, Mama says. The brass section in particular were invented to deafen the basses.

Also somewhere on the upper floors is a play area for older children called the Launch Pad  with all sorts of hands on activities with a vague connection to something scientific. Mama does not like this area. It is absolutely heaving with large bodies and she has no hope of keeping an eye on both me and my Fabulous Big Brother at the same time. Especially as I can’t reach anything and just want to run around getting underfoot. There are plenty of buttons to push and computer screens to stare at and stab elsewhere up there though, even if the point of the displays does rather escape me, and it is well worth having a stroll around.

But the highlight of the Science Museum from my point of view are the two interactive areas for the under tens. Mama is a bit trepidatious about the one called the Garden. This is a secret play area, secret because the signage in the museum is a bit coy and unless you know what the Garden is you would probably never go down to the basement there and find out. All that’s there apart from the Garden is the picnic area for schools, a small coffee shop, some lecture theatres and the domestic appliances exhibition, which is almost always deserted. This is a shame, Mama feels. Early models of washing machines she can get quite enthusiastic about without further prompting, especially as there are more buttons to push so you can watch them spinning around. And the coffee shop is usually uncroweded and serves, well, it serves coffee. What more do you want? Anyway. The Garden. Yes, well, the thing about the Garden is that somebody decided that a really extensive and engrossing water section would be a good idea and when she first took my Fabulous Big Brother there, all unsuspecting like, Mama ended up having to hold him under the hand dryer in the toilets for forty five minutes to get him dry again. Nowadays we don’t go there unless it’s a really sunny day or Mama has bought a spare set of clothes because I, too, love splashing about in water with no regard for my clothing whatsoever.

Water play at the Science Museum
Those orange overalls do not protect clothes as well as you might think.

There’s also a bit where the Science Museum has decided to teach us about the futility and repetitive nature of our future lives as working stiffs, where we load up a wheelbarrow with bean bags, haul them up in a pulley driven bucket, slide them down a shute, load up the wheelbarrow again, fill up the bucket, tip them down the shute, load up the wheelbarrow… Mama seems surprised by how popular this is, but she clearly doesn’t know how thrilling it is to organise your minions into a smoothly operating machine, all doing exactly what you say and keeping you well supplied with all the bean bags you can eat.

The rest of the Garden pales into insignificance beside these two bits of equipment, but then we have plenty of big lego at home. Mama enjoys hitting the sound making objects, so I usually indulge her a bit in that, and less energetic children might enjoy the den with the soft toys or the self service puppet theatre.

The Pattern Pod is another play area for younger visitors on the ground floor just beyond Mama’s favourite Modern World extravaganza. When it’s not too busy and you can get a decent go on all of the equipment it is GREAT but that’s really only happened once or twice. I really like trying to catch the projected fish in the projected fish pool on the floor which RIPPLES WHEN YOU JUMP ON IT (finally, says Mama, water play which does not involve any dampness!), and putting ‘seed’ tiles into slots to make different patterns grow on the walls. I will also spend hours putting different geometric shapes together to make aeroplanes. But the best bit is the dancing room. They play you music, you bop around and your picture appears on the wall overlayed with different psychedelic effects. Even Mama wanted to have a go at that but she’s too big – the image is just one big blur. My height is perfect, which is not a sentence you get to type about museums on a regular basis.

The Pattern Pod at the Science Museum
It could be 1960 all over again.

Mama’s only reservation about the Pattern Pod, aside from a big sulk about her size not being adequately catered for, is that there are two exits, and she maintains that her paranoia about not being able to keep both of us under full surveillance when it is busy and one of us leaving from the other one and getting lost is perfectly reasonable, even though we have never shown the least inclination to do such a thing so far. There is a place to park pushchairs in both the Garden and the Pattern Pod, so at least Mama is free to chase after us unencumbered should she need to, for which she is duly thankful.

There are, of course, cafés. The one in the basement is always surprisingly quiet, and so is definitely worth a visit if a fix of caffeine and cake is all your big people need. Mama’s other favourite is called the Energy Café. It’s in the first gallery, the one with all the early steam engines, the ones that weren’t used for locomotives. Mama loves that they have the biggest one working at weekends (and holidays?) so much that she sometimes pops in just for that. It’s something about the noise, she says, and the smell, all hot oil and metal. In the cafe, Mama recommends the generous salad plate, which I like a good nibble off too. And the coffee is ok. She says. You have to play hunt the child high chair a bit sometimes, but now that I am bigger and spurn high chairs, this is less of an issue. The restaurant at the back of the ground floor we haven’t been to. But it is very blue and luminous, which looks lovely.

The Science Museum is huge and has a huge variety of different exhibits which we have only really scratched the surface of, despite our many visits. The top floors have a lot more for the bigger kids, and when we have my Fabulous Big Brother with us again, I suspect we will be spending more and more time up there. There are also a lot of shows and 3D film experiences and so on and I can see from her longing looks at the posters that Mama is just itching for us to grow up a bit so she can go to all of them. As is it is, I highly recommend the Science Museum for really young kids for the play areas alone. But those are not the only reasons I like it, and I am always happy to go, to the extent of gesticulating wildly in its general direction if Mama tries to nip past it to go and look at dinosaurs.

For example.

More Information

The Science Museum’s  every daywebsite.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about the first manned space flight.

Address: Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD.

Opening: 10.00 – 18.00 every day.

Admission: Free

By Tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). There is a subway walk that runs directly from the station to the museum entrance.

By Bus: The 360 stops right outside the museum. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington. The 9, 10, 52, 452 and 70 stop at the Royal Albert Hall (five minutes away). 

By Car: No. Nonononononono. NOOOOOOOOOOO!

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victoria and Albert, generally known as the V&A, presumably, Mama says, because the owners don’t want to have to keep explaining that Albert is not another name for David or something, is a design museum with somewhat the same remit as the British Museum. The difference is, whereas the Stuff in the British Museum is significant, the Stuff in the V&A is pretty. Plus, there are more dresses.

The V&A front enterance

Mama likes it a lot. However, the problem with it as a venue for the younger set is that many of their display cases start at adult waist height, which is no good to me, while at the same time they also have a habit of putting things like large 3000 year-old sculptures in the shape of a dragon just asking to be stroked on the floor at toddler height.

You are not supposed to stroke them.

Mama knows this because when my Wonderful Big Brother did, back when he was even younger than me, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, two museum personnel wince dramatically.

This recalled her to sanity; she’d been spending so little time in big people space that up until then she had half assumed that nobody would put a sculpture on the floor if they didn’t expect a bit of small person handling. She whisked my Wonderful Big Brother away but unfortunately she chose the sculpture gallery to retreat to. After he then tried to play hide and seek amongst the rather flimsy plinths holding busts and small figurines (again, too high up for a little ’un to really appreciate, so… you make your own fun), Mama left the building and didn’t return for quite some time. Especially after a head by Rodin had actually wobbled on its stand. Time stood still for Mama that day, I can tell you.

Funnily enough the very first thing I headed for the very first time she let me off the leash inside were the exciting columny things, which I then prceeded to dance excitedly around, just outside easy grabbing reach. I even targeted the same artist!

At least we have taste!!! Mama says, somewhat hysterically.

My Wonderful Big Brother has since matured, Mama has learned to keep a firm hand on my collar, and searching for interesting animal knick knacks has become a profitable pastime. The section devoted to the Indian subcontinent is particularly excellent for this. We also really like the writhing glass tentacles and colourful dangling planet sculpture in the front entrance hall. But Mama fears for the impressive Persian rug if our muddy feet should stray on it, and is not thrilled by the way we beg passers-by for coins to throw in the fountain just off the entrance foyer, so all in all she recommends basically that the whole of the ground floor is not one to linger on unless you are planning to visit the coffee shop. Mama sneaks in there quite often when I am asleep. The coffee, Mama thinks, is vastly over-priced and so are their scones, but on the other hand you can choose between drinking it in the outdoor courtyard surrounded by the rather splendid building facades or drinking it in the large rooms where the walls are amazingly beautiful old patterned tiles.

One of the beautiful buildings in the courtyard of the V&A

When I am awake Mama heads for the lifts. If you go up to the very top floor there are a series of rooms which Mama thinks must actually be a glorified store for surplus ceramics. All the decorative plates, figurines, pots and tiles you could possibly want from all areas and all eras and as the cases are floor to nearly ceiling I can actually see them! And it’s all behind glass! Mama invariably breathes a sigh of relief and lets me gallop up and down the aisles to my hearts content as there aren’t many people up here usually either. Just don’t go round the corner to the furniture gallery. It may look like a living room, but it isn’t because you aren’t allowed to sit on anything. Or fiddle with the interesting little lights spotlighting the chair-shaped art. Apparently.

Ceramics at the V&A

The middle couple of floors are much more touchy feely. There are telephones! I haven’t found Papa on the other end yet, which is odd because it’s usually him on the one at home, but some of the music they play while they are looking for him is fun. There are also drawers you can open and close and open and close and, look, more drawers to open and close and open and close. They have stuff in them, but that’s not the point, of course. Mama appreciates the drawers greatly. She can have a rare moment of actually looking at the exhibits while I am otherwise occupied and relatively static.

Drawers at the V&A

If you fancy a sit down, they show films on these levels too. Oddly they are not in colour and everyone walks around very quickly. Mama says they are films of everyday life from a place called ‘over 100 years ago’. She finds them quite fascinating. So do I – the women have princessy sort of dresses and there are loads of horses. I will move there when I am bigger. Mama says the laws of physics might have something to say about that, but I am half Russian and most laws do not apply to me so I do not foresee any problems there. You can also find areas specially for small people, and although clearly they can’t compare to the drawers, I do enjoy the building blocks, which gives Mama a sneaky chance to get stuck into the dressing up. Sometimes Mama also amuses herself by going on a hunt for the mythical music room. She hasn’t found it yet – presumably it is only in the building every second Thursday when the moon is in the final quarter or something.

Anyway. Overall, the V&A is not the most restful of venues for those toddler Mama’s out there due to the need for constant vigilance to ensure that no priceless bits of artwork are destroyed by small questing hands, but there is plenty to see and the refreshment area is superior.

More information

The Victoria and Albert Museum website.

Here’s what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about the Functions of Chairs in the 20th Century.

Address: Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL

Opening: 10am to 5.45pm daily, with opening to 10pm on Fridays.

Price: Admission is free.

By Tube: South Kensington is is about five minutes walk. Piccadilly, Circle and District lines.

By Bus: The C1, 14, 74, 414 routes stop right outside, as do tour buses.

By Car: Seriously?