What a rainy half term we had – perfect for combining a family get-together with a museum visit. Our group consisted of five children, aged between 1 and 13, and three adult siblings (including one childless student) – so we needed somewhere that would appeal to all ages and interests.
Enter the Museum of London, a museum about London and its people throughout history, located in the Barbican complex in the City of London.
As with all large museums, it’s impossible to see and do everything in one trip. You can either focus on one or two galleries – or go for the whip-round approach. With a gaggle of excited kids, we went for the speedy see-it, touch-it all approach. Should you want to be more focused, backpacks and paper trails of galleries are available (for a small fee/deposit) at the Family Point at the front of the museum.
Just like the history of London itself, the displays themselves are varied in style and content. From objects in showcases and hands-on exhibits to interactives, videos and recreated streets and even a light and sound show in a pleasure garden – the variety really helps maintain interest.
On the ground floor, we perused pre-history, ransacked the Romans, ogled the Anglo-Saxons, meditated on the medieval galleries and wallowed in ‘War, Plague and Fire’, all before lunch.
After a homemade lunch in the dedicated picnic room, we took part in a free craft activity (which I’ll say more about later), then toured the underground galleries – from Georgians and Victorians right through to the present day.
All in all, we spent 4 hours in the museum – we were all tired by the end but had enjoyed our visit immensely. My sister commented it was much easier in half term than the Natural History Museum or Science Museum in terms of getting round – lower visitor numbers make it feel a far more relaxed experience.
Our highlights? In terms of collections, there are many amazing objects on display which appealed to everyone. The kids loved the recreated debtors prison complete with original 18th century graffiti; were amazed by the ridiculously wide and beautifully embroidered Fanshawe dress; enjoyed the Victorian Street (particularly the urinal!); discussed the Roman wall (although the main interest seemed to centre around whether the pigeons near the wall were dead or not); and liked the extremely ornate Lord Mayor’s coach with its strokeable horses. A Top Ten guide is available to download here if you wanted to send your kids on a museum treasure hunt.
The plentiful interactives are varied, of a high standard and support the main themes of each gallery. All age groups LOVED the anglo-saxon house, either play cooking or discussing the ingredients of a great horror story.
Mostly the interactives are better for older kids. As well as being engaging, the Fire of London video and model really makes it clear about how the fire spread and the chronology, so if your child is studying this at school, definitely visit! They also particularly liked the Medieval life choices game . My 11 year old is currently telling everyone how she died falling out of a window whilst having a wee, and of her cousins’ other gruesome medieval deaths.
There was one minor exception to the quality of the interactives – the weighing bags in the Roman market seem to have mostly gone missing, making the scales unusable. Hopefully they can be recovered!
The craft activity began with the session leader giving an illustrated talk on stained glass, and then children used black paper, sticky tape and coloured plastic to make their own ‘stained glass’. The 11 year old plus cousins took part under the watchful eye of my sister – it captured their interest for around half an hour, and all the kids mentioned it as one of their favourite parts of the trip.
Some small observations – the tables were at an awkward height, and with no chairs provided my daughter had to kneel on the floor to get comfortable. I also wish more museum activities were adapted to be suitable for mixed age groups – for example, a toddler table could have been set up where I could have done some themed sticking with the little one, rather than being told to take him away completely.
So, thousands of years of history, great objects, lots of hands-on activities and a bit of craft – all for free and without the mega-queues of the nationals. What’s not to love?
THE BARE BONES
Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN
Current opening hours: (check website before setting out)
10.00am – 6.00pm daily
Recommended length of visit: As long as your attention span will last – I’ll guess up to 4 hours.
Buggy accessible?: Yes – level entrance and lift to all floors. Buggy park available outside London before Londoners gallery, but buggy must be folded.
Baby changing: Yes, in two dedicated baby change/disabled toilets – one on each gallery floor, both with working straps.
Breastfeeding friendly?: There are places to sit throughout the gallery space, as well as a cafe area on both floors, and given that it is not overly busy I think you’d find a quiet spot.
Toddler time from gallery to toilets: A good few minutes if you’re at the other end of the museum, use the ramp that clings to the central glass atrium to get there quicker rather than wander through the galleries.
Nearest playground: Fortune Street Park has play areas for toddlers and bigger kids, and is about a 12 minute walk away. If you want some green space a bit closer, try Postman’s Park, which is just a stone’s throw away from the museum.
Food: The museum has a cafe run by Benugo which offers kids lunches for £4.50, expect to pay about £6-7 for an adult sandwich. The museum also offers a picnic area for all visitors – turn right out of the main entrance, past the horse, turn right again and it’s on the left. Press the buzzer to get in. There are plenty of long tables although it is a bit of a squish to get around them with a buggy or wheelchair.
Want to make more of a day of it?: You’re right in the heart of the City with some fantastic sights – St Paul’s Cathedral is 5-10 minutes away, and you can walk from there to Tate Modern over the (sadly no longer) wobbly bridge. Or check out what’s happening right next to the museum in the Barbican – a massive multi-arts and cinema space. If you time it right, you could also visit the Barbican Conservatory – the second biggest conservatory in London with exotic fish and 2,000 tropical plants and trees, open on selected dates.