Tring Natural History Museum, Hertfordshire

In the UK, London has all the best stuff worth visiting.

Just a few lesser, obviously compensatory, projects are mopped up by either the other larger British cities or the National Trust, at least until the capital figures out how to fit those in and insists on bringing them home too.

But this does not explain the existence of Tring Natural History Museum as it is in none of these locations.

Interesting Mammals at Tring Natural History Museum

Tring is a modest collection of dwellings at the other end of Hertfordshire to the one that Mama calls her hometown. It is principally famous for being the location of Mama’s uncle’s house for many years, for having an excellent running club, a canal, the 7th longest comedy festival in the world, a Co-op, a Tesco AND a Marks and Spencer (according to Wikipedia), and for being one of two possible birthplaces of the great-grandfather of the first president of the United States of America.

It was also a home of the Rothschild family, one of whom closely resembled my Zero Empathy Big Brother in both his passion for animals and his determination from a young age to catch as many of them as he could and keep them, alive or dead, it doesn’t really matter, in his house for his own gratification serious scientific study. Unlike my Zero Empathy Big Brother, being both Victorian and fabulously rich, this is precisely what Walter Rothschild actually did when he grew up, and the resulting collection of stuffed animals passed in the fullness of time to the nation and became known as Tring Natural History Museum (affiliated to the one in London).

Sadly his zebra drawn carriage, or at least the zebra drawn carriage with actual zebras attached, did not make it to the modern age, which is strange. I thought museums were short of funding these days. Imagine the prices you could charge for rides round Tring in that!

Anyway. Despite the fact that my Great Uncle mentioned Tring Natural History Museum to us a number of times when we saw him, we were generally too busy admiring his tortoise to bother visiting, and it was not until we needed a wet weather place to hang out during our recent Christmas visit to Stevenage that we actually got around to going.

This delay in checking it out may have been a mistake.

The thing is, just as having a pet is supposed to help children get their heads around the concept that animals are actual real beings of value as well as introduce the concepts of caring, responsibility and cleaning poo off everything in preparation for having their own children, there really is a lot to be said for being confronted in person by the sheer variety, the spectacular beauty, and the breathtaking unlikeliness of the animal world.

Delicate balancing act that, and in many ways stuffed animals are better than zoos for this. You can cram a lot into a small space, boggling opportunities therefore abound, nobody worries about how many square metres are the minimum for comfortable living for an elephant, or whether that rocking motion means the bear has gone mad with the boredom of it all, and, best of all, none of the livestock are going to go off and skulk at the back of their enclosure and refuse to come out until we are gone.

Plus, at Tring Natural History Museum there are animal-themed fancy dress costumes and a fascinating video of someone committing taxidermy, with none of the gory bits left out.

At small child eye level.

Taxidermy Video at Tring Natural History Museum

We gathered round it and refused to move until the last drop of blood had been wiped off the scalpel.

It was FABULOUS.

And surprisingly nobody had nightmares, not even Mama.

In addition, we may not consider hunting animals down and dragging their decomposing bodies back to admire on our mantelpiece quite the thing these days, but that doesn’t stop many more of us than just the super rich exploiting the natural world for our own amusement, and the Tring Natural History Museum is a good place to contemplate the consequences of letting your enthusiasms get the better of you at the expense of the greater good.

Especially as this message that this sort of behaviour is hardly all in the past is underlined by the notices telling visitors that the rhino horns on display are all fake, so nobody should contemplate trying to steal them.

Fake rhino horn at Tring Natural History Museum

Which, apparently, someone did once. WT actual F. Says Mama.

All of these animals are housed in the splendid Victorian building Walter Rothschild had built to house the largest private collection of stuffed animals ever assembled. This makes it tall rather than wide, and our first top tip is to head straight up to the top floor while everyone else starts at the bottom.

You will briefly have the place to yourselves, although this will not stop the bottom floor from being absolutely rammed by the time you get to it. Tring Natural History Museum is clearly (and deservedly) a favoured hangout for those with kids in inclement weather and people will be arriving all the time.

Antelope with a big nose at Tring Natural History Museum

This means that it is great that the cases are decidedly families-with-small-children friendly, coming straight down to the floor with plenty of interest at all eye-levels. Big up to the forethought of our Victorian forefathers there.

Who also appreciated the delight of a good set of drawers set round the gallery overlooking the ground floor. Admittedly these are a bit higher up, but Mama had just been eating for Christmas so the effort did her good. Butterflies! Shiny beetles! Cockroaches! Coool!

If you like your animals bigger, there is plenty for you to look at too, with crowd-pleasers like a polar bear front and centre.

Polar Bear at Tring Natural Hisotry Museum

That said, I think it was the more unusual looking animals that caught our eyes, and there are plenty of those too.

Vampire Deer at Tring Natural History Museum

The only downside is that you will want to be leaving the pushchairs and such like in the car. Quite apart from anything else, the queues for the lifts will annoy you, but mainly it’s because it’s all a bit narrow and crowded.

Another suggestion is to either bring your own sarnies – there is a lunch room in the car park – or plan to eat out somewhere in the town (the High Street is just a short walk down the road), as the café is quite small and mainly set up for coffee and snacks rather than anything more substantial.

But there is parking! We arrived at the beginning of the day and caught the last two parking spaces in the museum’s very own FREE car park. It’s a busy place on a wet winter holiday day, is Tring Natural History Museum. Not to worry though. There are other (reasonably priced. It’s not London after all) car parks not far away in Tring proper.

Of course, any display of stuffed animals is going to garner the inevitable comparisons (from my besotted Mama) to the Darwin Museum in Moscow, and we may as well get it out the way up front that is not quite as extensive and therefore as fabulous as that.

Rams at Tring Natural History Museum

It is, however, the closest we have found in the UK to the world’s best museum so far, and therefore if you are not planning to hop across to the other end of Europe any time soon, it will have to do.

And it certainly will do. Its London-deficient status notwithstanding.

More Information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the resurrection of George Washington.

Address: The Walter Rothschild building, Akeman Street, Tring, Hertfordshire, HP23 6AP

Opening: 10am – 5pm Monday – Saturday, 2pm – 5pm Sundays.

Admission: Free

Public Transport: Trains exist out of London from Clapham Junction. The station is about two miles from Tring Natural History Museum. There are buses.

By Car: See above re the parking! Tring is on the A41 about 30 miles from London. You want junction 20 of the M25.

ANIMALTALES

State Historical Museum, Moscow

Mama firmly believes it wasn’t the State Historical Museum in Moscow’s fault that the time we went there ended with my Imaginative Big Brother declaring it the WORST DAY OUT EVAH!

After all, it’s bang in the centre of Moscow, housed at the north end of Red Square in one of the most entertainingly decorated buildings of a city full of entertainingly decorated buildings. How could anticipation not be high when you spot what you are gamboling towards?

State Historical Museum Moscow
How cool is this?

Similarly, when the interior is also so worthy of the fact that you have schlepped both your and your little sister’s cameras along in your very own backpack, and when the museum assistants are so impressed and appreciative about your choice of soft toy companion for the visit, what’s not to like?

Ceiling State Historical Museum Moscow
Look up!

Plus, we may not be wildly enthusiastic about every last thing in a museum, but we can usually be persuaded to take at least a tepid interest in, I dunno, animal themed knick knacks, random fire extinguishers, or anything which is absolutely not supposed to be touched even if it is within touching distance, as long as Mama doesn’t insist on this happening for too long.

So what went wrong?

Mama, the trained historian with a passing interest in the pitfalls of teaching the subject to children, has a quiet determination (*cough* a bee in her bonnet) about making sure that we do not end up seeing history as a long story of inexorable progress towards the current pinnacle of civilization that exists today. Or rather, because Mama is now over 40 the pinnacle of civilization that existed about fifteen years in the past.

But in her quest to convince us that just because modern human beings have Apple watches it does not mean that we are inherently better than our ancestors, she may have overdone the emphasis on how utterly brilliant, how terribly skilled, how marvelously clever it was that people MORE THAN A MILLION YEARS AGO were already able to invent technology and improve on it in much the same way this generation has done with the humble digital watch, as exemplified by the vast collection of stone age tools and suchlike that kicks off the exhibition.

Flint tools State Historical Museum Moscow
Much much more impressive than a mere Apple watch

At which point, my Imaginative Big Brother demonstrated his admirably increasing awareness of deep time and got the collywobbles. MORE THAN A MILLION YEARS AGO being a lot of grandfathers back, and, and this is the point, representing a lot of dead and gone grandfathers.

An existential crisis not really helped by the fact that when we came to the intriguing stone cave-room painstakingly re-constructed in the halls of the State Historical Museum, Mama enthusiastically told us how many dead people had been found inside (700) and that really history, especially the history of very long ago, is mostly driven by finding caches like this and is therefore based on the stuff that was buried with the dead people.

Well, that and ancient rubbish tips, but by then it was too late for this kind of qualification. Too much information, Mama. We may never be happy about setting foot in a museum again, and certainly took the rest of this one at a fair clip while clutching Mama’s arms and blanching at the thought of ghosts and suchlike all the way round.

Not even the really cool shiny gold and silver items room could entirely placate us although Mama insisted on pausing for long enough to take a photo of the cup made by one of the Tsars himself. With his own two hands. The wooden bit now nearly obscured by layers of overwrought bling anyway.

Wooden and gold cup State Historical Museum Moscow
Someone should probably do this to the deformed clay pots and similar I bring home to Mama

This is the kind of thing the Historical Museum is good at. It’s not just a place which houses props to illustrate an age. Many of the items have historical significance, or at least historical curiosity value, in and of themselves. Non Russian readers may need to pick up the audio-guide to properly appreciate this, although the fact that Mama knows about the cup shows that English language labeling does certainly exist.

That said, some of the props are pretty cool. Mama thinks. The old fashioned carriage which has skis where the wheels should be was almost as entertaining to her as the pushchairs in the shops which have come up with the same engineering solution to the large amount of snow Moscow ought to be able to expect each winter.

Carriage sleigh State Historical Museum Moscow
Jingle bells, jingle bells..

Not that she has seen anyone out and about with one here yet, to her frustration and Instagram’s loss. Global warming has a lot to answer for.

Did such fabulous exoticism lifted us out of our doldrums though? No, of course not.

Neither did gawping the splendid collection of swords. Swords are for KILLING PEOPLE to make graves, to provide cannon fodder for GHOULS like Mama – it is possible that Mama should not have suggested that we look at the design of each one and consider how it might have been wielded.

swords State Historical Museum Moscow
When historical instruction goes wrong

In fact, the only thing that cheered my Imaginative Big Brother up in any way, was the hall of fashions and interiors, and that was only because one of the items on display was a hat with an actual dead bird splayed out in a jaunty manner on top. Actual dead birds, unlike hypothetically dead people, he is absolutely fine with. I was too far gone to even vaguely appreciate this, or the very princessy nature of the outfits. Which is unlike me.

Bird hat State Historical Museum Moscow
This dead bird hat is clearly the best thing in the State Historical Museum

But that’s because nothing in the State Historical Museum was really the reason why the day out so traumatized my Imaginative Big Brother. Even if you are having a determined sulk in front of the displays, there are still free doughnuts being handed out on the street, the richest cup of hot chocolate you have ever tasted round the corner, random architectural features to be climbed in the pedestrianised centre, and even pigeons to chase.

No, the reason why he was unhappy was that I hadn’t recovered as much as Mama thought after my epic two week ‘we’ve-moved-countries-and-bathed-in-foreign-germs-from two-different-schools’ virus extravaganza, and we overdid it in the afternoon by visiting the giant toy shop just up the road.

As a result I ended up screaming all the way home. Twenty minutes on the Metro with an inconsolable child. Another fifteen minutes of further transport hell. It would scar anyone.

So. Providing you do not make Mama’s parenting mistakes, the State Historical Museum is definitely worth a ramble around when you are in the vicinity of Red Square sometime. Stay away from the topics of generations of dead people, ensure your children are essentially snot-free and remember the crowd-pleasing designer taxidermy is just round the corner and you’ll be golden.

More Information

The museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Henderson Island and the prehistoric economy of feathers.

Address: 1 Red Square, Moscow,

Opening: Wednesday – Monday (CLOSED on Tuesdays) 10am to 6pm, with later opening on Friday and Saturday.

Admission: Adults: 350 roubles (3.5 GBP), children under 16: free.

By public transport: The connected Metro stations of Oxhotny Ryad (red line), Teatralnaya (green line) and Ploshad Revolutsii (dark blue line) all pop you out next to or nearby the State Historical Museum.

By other means: You’re joking, right?

MummyTravels
Packing my Suitcase

The Experimentanium, Moscow

The rules of the Experimentanium in Moscow explicitly forbid you to bring your double bass along. A bit big, they seem to think. Mama, the former double bass player, was duly outraged.

On the upside, they are quite keen on you touching the exhibits.

This is because the Experimentanium is less of a museum and more of all the good bits of the Science Museum in London, that is to say the play areas, installed in a large open plan building, with a healthy dose of the sort of crowd-pleasing interactive weirdness favoured by Edinburgh’s House of Illusions to spice it up further.

No wading though incomprehensible installations of machinery you aren’t allowed to climb on, just three floors of push button fun.

Electromagneticism at the Experimentanium Museum

There are explanatory placards though. And horrifyingly, many of them are in English. Mama insisted on reading some them out to us, especially when she couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing. From which I gather that I may think mucking around with water is pure entertainment but actually the Bermuda Triangle sinks balls of methane because of ships’ density. Or something. Lots of learning to be done, clearly, as you make your way round the play stations *cough* experimental lab benches.

To underline its educational credentials, the Experimentanium divides its experiments up into zones of like-minded activities.

Handkerchiefs at the Experiementanium Museum

There are mechanical objects to manipulate and puzzles to solve. Mama was delighted to be able to demonstrate her superior intellect by smugly completing the one with the goat, the wolf, the vegetation and the boat in double quick time. I am suspicious. Mama is very old. I think she might have heard about it before.

There’s a electricity and electromagnetic area, where things stick together inexplicably and you can build yourself all sorts of strangely shaped metal towers out of iron filings.

There’s a windzone which has a fully sittable-on FLYING CARPET (I shit you not, says Mama, which I think is supposed to be high praise) and the real life mini tornado, which had Mama transfixed for a number of minutes. Mama clearly does not come from a place where tornadoes are a menace rather than a curiosity. I apologise to large sections of America.

There’s the optical illusions bit, where we all got delightfully frustrated trying to pick up a holographic sweetie, where we scrambled round a tilted house until Mama decided the cognitive dissonance was triggering her latent travel sickness, and where we got to muck around in a mirror maze (Dunk dunk dunk dunk dunk. My Super Big Brother has not got any better at picking his way though these). We also tried to navigate our way round a room in pitch blackness with only the shouts of family members watching on the infrared camera to guide us from the outside. We did that THREE TIMES!

Holographic sweet at the Experimentanium Museum

There is the waterzone, which has one of those tables you are supposed to navigate your boat down with only the ability to open and close various lock gates and direct the odd current (but where everybody under the age of ten just gets sodden up to the the elbows happily driving their ships around manually). Mama thought the water was looking a tad grubby in some of the surrounding tanks while we were there and got very busy with the wetwipes afterwards, which is unlike her. But she also had a lot of fun balancing the ping-pong balls on the jets of water herself, so I reckon she didn’t care that much.

Water table at the Experimentanium Museum

And then there’s the acoustics zone. Mama recommends you do not enter this if you are in any way of a nervous disposition. Let’s just say that the full-sized drum kit you could whack away at to your heart’s content was one of the quieter things, shall we, and tiptoe away while our eardrums are still intact. But not until you have had a jolly good go on everything, of course. BOOM CRASH BANG WHALLOP SCREECH SCREEEEEEECH PLINKETY PLINKETY PLONK.

Mama particularly enjoyed the machine where you could test your hearing of different frequencies. Her latent competitive nature insisted on turning the knob ALL THE WAY ROUND. Luckily, being a former bass player and thus sitting next to the brass section throughout her teenage years means that she has already very little hearing left anyway. Of course you are not supposed to be able to hear it, but the point where it gets impossibly squeaky is a sensation of its own.

Frequency at the Experimentanium Museum

But best of all is the bubble room. Mama and I have now been to many many of the Science Museum’s bubble shows, and while I still highly recommend them, the Experimentanium has upped the ante by providing us with all the equipment we need to DO IT ALL OURSELVES. Yes, we too have now wafted around the giant bubble wand to make bubble snakes, and we have personally stood inside the giant bubble ring and operated the pulley to enfold ourselves inside a person-sized bubble. In your FACE, the Science Museum (although with grateful thanks as our superior technique was much informed by your examples)!

Bubble machine at the Experimentanium Museum

If you are thinking that this sounds damp and not a little sticky you would be correct. But the room has clearly been specially prepped with, among other things, special non slip flooring and a sink to wash your hands afterwards. There are toilets are pretty close by too, which is helpful. Either way even Mama agreed that it was well worth it. WELL WORTH IT.

The Experimentanium has shows of its own, mind. No idea what they are like as we didn’t go. Mama considers the basic experience sufficient considering you have to pay extra. She may, of course, change her mind when we are in the middle of February and really really fed up of snow. Luckily, the Experimentanium looks as though it can soak up a fair number of visitors. On the day we went it was wet and busy without ever approaching the levels of being rammed full which make visiting such venues unpleasant. She is hopeful that this will hold true in the depths of winter too.

The Experimentanium also boasts a surprisingly modest shop, given the size of the place, and a very reasonably priced café. Mama would have preferred it if the café followed the usual Russian café tradition of being entirely chips and chicken nuggets free, but we wouldn’t. At least it wasn’t closed, and shows no sign of ever shutting its doors arbitrarily. And we all approved of the toys you could bring to your table and play around with while you ate. We also admired the lavishly supplied birthday party table set up next to us. If the Experimentanium only had animals, I reckon my Super Big Brother would be well up for coming here for his come the summer.

So the Experimentanium Museum is definitely somewhere that you should have on your list of places to hang out with children in Moscow, and let’s face it, places you can go and amuse yourselves if you don’t have kids too. It’s large, well-organised, interesting and educational to boot. And would stand up to repeated visits as there are so many things to play with, you’ll almost certainly find yourself fascinated by something different each time you go.

Plus, there is a trampoline park in a building next door, so if you feel like making a really long indoor day out of it, you can. I am pretty sure Mama really wants to go and jump around madly, and I am sure that we will be doing so in the not so distant future. But that will be a story for another time.

Photo Credits

Mama’s camera was being difficult on our visit, but luckily the nice people at the Experimentanium let her use some of their photos. Our visit was our own idea and at our own expense, however.

More information

The Experimentanium Museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Brainiac – Science Abuse! the TV programme.

Address: Leningradskii Prospekt d.80, k.11, Moscow, 127015

Opening: 9.30am to 7pm seven days a week.

Admission: Adults – between 450 to 650 roubles (£4.50 – £6.50). It’s cheapest on Mondays and most expensive on weekends. Children over 3 – between 350 to 550 roubles (£3.50 – £5.50). Family tickets and discounts for those with more than three children are also available.

By Metro: The nearest station is Sokol on the darker green line.

The steps up to the exit are in the centre of the platform. You need to follow the signs for Baltiiskaya Street and go right up the massive highway as you exit the station building. When you have completed the short walk to the junction for Baltiiskaya Street, turn right along it and walk for a minute or so until you see an archway entrance to a courtyard on the opposite side of the street with a large Experimentanium sign in orange letters above it. This is where you cross the street, using the pedestrian crossing. It’s important to come back the same way because there isn’t a crossing at the top of the street. Go through the archway, and the Experimentanium is the building on your right. You can’t miss it because it is covered in actually pretty cool murals.

By other means: Buses and trolley buses exist. There also seems to be some car parking in the courtyard, but it could be reserved for other buildings. Whatever. Go by Metro is Mama’s advice.

Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL, London

The first thing you see as you walk through the door of the Grant Museum of Zoology is a cabinet containing the strangely popular jar of moles, a large glass jar completely full of small pickled moles.

Well, you might as well start as you mean to go on.

The Grant Museum of Zoology is University College London’s collection of preserved dead animals, originally put together in order to provide students with instructive examples to enhance their studies, now also open to the public.

Grant Museum of Zoology

It’s a one room museum, albeit a fairly large room reminiscent of one of those libraries in the stately homes Mama is always dragging us round. And so if you are going there thinking you will be able to see the whole, the very whole, of the animal world stuffed and mounted, preserved in formaldehyde, or posed in skeleton form, you will be disappointed. You want the Darwin Museum in Moscow for that.

Brains at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Eclectic is probably the best way to describe it. Quite clearly while some items were indeed acquired or at least displayed purely with science in mind, others seem to have been added because of their yuk factor, their exoticism, or even their beauty. Wander round and see what you can find that catches your eye. They have specimens from all types of environment, in all different sizes, in all states of preservation. Complete animals, braaaaiiiiiiiiins, skins and, I dunno, toenail clippings or something. Mammals, reptiles, insects and squidgy things that used to live in the sea. Large animals and microscopic ones. Fluffy cute things and monsters that should never have seen the light of day in a properly ordered universe. There will be something, I assure you, that makes you want to stop and stare.

Pangolin at the Grant MMuseum f Zoology

Although if you are my height that might involve a bit of being lifted up. Many of the glass cases are not very accessible for the very short.

Take, for example, the case of badly stuffed animals, where visitors are invited to speculate on the problems past taxidermists had of recreating an animal they had never seen in real life, something which ties in nicely to their current temporary exhibition, Strange Creatures: the art of unknown animals. Or in other words, representations of newly discovered animals such as the kangaroo in the age before the explorer would have posed for a selfie with it on Instagram before the cries of ‘Great Scot what is that?’ had even died away.

Don’t miss the skeletons of primates arranged to, I dunno, provide a bit of light relief for students stressed out by being asked to do yet another exam in an education system which doesn’t exactly stint on tests, assessments and grading. Certainly amused us, and that’s nice given that we are failing to meet all sorts of educational targets because of Mama’s firm belief that days out at places like the Grant Museum are more entertaining than practising spellings or attempting to persuade me to loosen my fisted grip on the colouring pencils.

Then there is the micrarium, an alcove of slides showing the Grant Museum’s vast collection of microscopic organisms, which we enjoyed exploring with the handy magnifying glasses nearby, but which Mama enjoyed photographing because it is just so striking, visually speaking.

Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Mama would also like to report that the Grant Museum also has some excellent mature pushbutton fun. This takes the form of a number of touch screens dotted about with genuinely knotty ethical dilemas related to the world of conservation and collecting for you to comment on and have tweeted out to the world. Literally a tad above my head, (they are mounted high up), they were still child friendly enough for my Fabulous Big Brother to keenly formulate some answers, and, obviously, if you know Mama and her delight in holding an opinion, you will be unsurprised that she really got into this. Last time we went they were off being tweaked and were unavailable, much to Mama’s disappointment, but I daresay they will be back again when you go.

What we smaller people like best about the place, though, is that in school holidays they get out stuff for us to handle, and a goodly range of the weird, the wonderful, the knobbly and the very very strokable it is too. Also, the staff on hand helping out patiently let my Fabulous Big Brother pour out all his love of the animal world, list the interesting facts he could remember about something on the table in front of him, and ask all the questions he liked. To which he got serious, well considered answers. It’s a great environment for a budding naturalist to hang out in.

They also have crafting sessions, which is even more my speed, and Mama thinks that their Easter egg trail is one of the best she’s come across as you do actually have to solve the reasonably challenging riddle to either find the animal which is propping up the lettered egg or, if you stumble across an egg by accident, decide where it should go in order to make up the (fairly unguessable) name of the final animal you have to find. Very clever. We enjoyed it. Two years running now. Mama thinks they should get new clues for our paschal visit next year. I think we should just go wild and see perhaps what they have us doing at Christmas or something .

Obviously as you are on UCL’s campus there isn’t a café as part of the Grant Museum – you even have to get a special door pass from the front desk to break into the the toilet area – and the surrounding area is not crammed full with child friendly eateries. But you are in central London here, so you don’t have far to go to get back on more touristy beaten paths.

It is near other museums such as the British Museum and UCL’s other repository of stuff gained through its studious activities, the Petrie Museum of Archaeology. But I recommend that if you want to make a day of it you leaven the educational portion of the trip out with a visit to Coram Fields and its playgrounds, live animals and waterplay. Or shopping if that’s what floats your boat, as Oxford Street is just down the road.

The Grant Museum of Zoology, then, is highly suitable for both the animal mad and those who like curiosities. Which pretty much describes my family to a T. You?

More information

The Grant Museum’s website.

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

Address: Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE

Opening:Monday – Saturday 1pm to 5pm

Admission: Free!

By tube/ train: The closest tube stations are Warren Street (Victoria and Northern lines) and Eaton Square (Bakerloo, Circle and Hammersmith and City lines). Euston rail and tube station (Victoria and Northern lines) is also well within walking distance.

By bus: Lots of buses serve UCL’s campus.

By car: Nope.

Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

People, or at least lists of child friendly days out, keep suggesting London’s Museum of Childhood as a suitable destination to Mama.

Mama does not really believe in this recommendation.

She is a bit over toys. Don’t get me wrong, the rise of things like adult colouring books show that everybody likes indulging their inner three year old at times. And indeed Mama herself enjoys a good sticking opportunity, a reasonably challenging jigsaw puzzle and the zip wires in the playground.

Plus, she LOVED the World of Illusions.

But toys no longer have the same pull of nostalgia that they might have done if every day she weren’t having to avoid treading on them, worry about whether this or that set is complete, scrub dried on glue off the table, listen to the robot shout rhyming demands for me to play with it every five seconds until she removes its batteries, or repeat the same mind numbing game of snakes and ladders over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Mama also considers that if she wanted to watch us get wound up into a froth of frustration over not being allowed to play with and take home the really cool things we see all around us, she could just take us to the local toy shop for a few hours.

So it might come as a surprise that one of the first places she took us to both times she has been in Edinburgh was its Museum of Childhood.

The thing is, it’s right on the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile from Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

In fact, it’s right on the Royal Mile in such a location that if you have come by train, crossed Waverley Bridge and entered the famous length of street, wandered up to have a look at the castle, wandered back down again, admired the Cathedral with its crown like cupola, its stained glass, its war memorials and its cafe, slogged past a thousand tacky souvenir shops, admired the architecture, boggled as Londoners at the idea that, apparently, many of the top floor flats in the buildings surrounding you are unoccupied, explored a few side streets, investigated how the streets are on top of each other in places rather than side by side and so on and so forth, then you will reach the Museum of Childhood at almost precisely the moment when us small children are about to rebel mightily at the thought of doing any more of the sort of idle rambling around a city that Mama and Papa used to enjoy before we turned up, leavened only by the street performers, who have a lot in common with those at Covent Garden and are therefore definitely worth a 20 minute look see.

And it’s free.

So Mama can be excused from popping in, she feels, in an attempt to break up the day and have a fighting chance of pushing on to Hollyrood House and the Scottish Parliament at the bottom of the hill. Or sidestep off the Royal Mile altogether and take in another excellent Edinburgh museum, the National Museum of Scotland.

And whaddayaknow. The Museum of Childhood is certainly not totally without interest. Each room has a theme – games, books, dolls, trains and so on – and each room has a corresponding set of toys to play with, so we mostly did that, while Mama strolled round and looked at the stuff.

Fish Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Plus, the Museum of Childhood has the most freaky looking mannequins we have ever come across. Definitely one for connoisseurs of the art of making full sized wax models of humans, although Mama rushed me through the school room full-sized mock ups on the grounds that she didn’t want any of us to be having nightmares that evening. Wise choice.

Of the toys, we liked the fishing game, the board games and the tea set but our favourite by far was the puppet theatre, where we took turns elbowing each other out of the way to put on increasingly elaborate shows for Mama with the three available characters.

Puppet Theatre Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Mama was enthralled by the playlettes of course, but also seemed pretty taken with the published book written by a nine year old in the 1800s, the doll house furniture and the many many dolls themselves, most of which rivaled the mannequins for worrying expressions and starey eyes.

Child Author Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

On his visit, Papa had his nose glued to the trains. And even we sometimes left off playing to come and look at the exhibits. We enjoyed quizzing Mama about the things that she said were straight out of her childhood games, and she enjoyed trying to impress upon us just how modest a set of random plastic tat children of days gone by were willing to put up with.

Early Board Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

It wasn’t convincing, that talk. Well, how could it be with floors and floors of toys to prove Mama wrong? And the shop. The shop you have to walk though to enter or leave. Now that’s what I call handy.

Mama seemed a tad less impressed though. She prefers to spend her tourist dollars in the café. But then there isn’t one at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. This matters not a jot, however, because, spiritually refreshed for more sightseeing, you should have ample time to track down some haggis or similar once you are back out on the Royal Mile before your children reach breaking point again.

The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, then, is perfectly placed to provide a distraction should you find yourself trundling through the middle of Scotland’s capital with small people to entertain. Enjoy!

More Information

The Museum of Childhood’s page on the Edinburgh Museums website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the seven deadly sins of electronic toy design.

Address: 42 High Street, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 1TG

Opening: Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm; Sunday 12pm – 5pm.

Admission: Free

By public transport: By train to Waverley Station, and then head towards the Royal Mile over Waverley Bridge. You want to be heading away from the castle down the hill. The numbers 6 and 35 buses stop nearby, or you can get any number of buses which go over North Bridge and bisect the Royal Mile.

By car: Allegedly there are car parks in Edinburgh, including some pay and display spaces near the museum.

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.

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).